A Celebration of Hawaii Casual Cuisine – L & L at 70

By Brandon Dela Cruz

In a get-together with the esteemed owner of this blog, I brought up the fact that L & L turned 70 in 2022. In his typical, “heh, now ain’t that somethin”‘ response, he casually asked me to provide some retrospect into it. I told him that I’d oblige his request with something better – I’d write about it.

In thinking about my tenure with the company which spans from the early 2000s and the legacy Hawaii brand known as L & L, it is incredible what has occurred. L & L has ushered a way for the cuisine of Hawaii to be enjoyed by the masses and has made a way for “Hawaii Fast Casual Cuisine” to become a thing internationally! To start, it behooves me to pay homage to the lineage of how the cuisine has gotten to where it is now. It is a cuisine that has changed, grown, added-onto, influenced, inspired, and evolved over many years to how it is L & L presents it through its roughly 220 locations in the present day.

Before the arrival of Captain Cook, Hawaii’s cuisine was primarily that which was offered by the indigenous people of the islands. Native Hawaiians cultivated their cuisine from many natural sources that spanned from the land to the sea including coconut and seaweed. From these sources, they would create a variety of dishes such as pork cooked from an underground oven called an “imu” that we now know as kālua pork. Pork and poi which was their main staple made from the Taro root. Perhaps the most well-known Hawaiian cultural cuisine offering is poke, or raw fish seasoned with a variety of condiments like sea salt and limu (a type of seaweed).

Traditional Hawaiian cultural foods like poke (as being prepared in this photo) became a mainstay in Hawaii cuisine and especially during parties.  Its popularity among the menu items within Hawaii’s cuisine remains high through the present day.
Photo Credit: Hawaii State Archives, Reference PP-49-4-014

In the mid-18th century, Hawaii was discovered by explorers from the west and became influenced by their customs and practices. Eventually, western business and commerce entered the area and ushered in Hawaii’s agricultural age. During the time that shaped this era of the islands, an influx of immigration from a variety of places around the world would occur to support the various opportunities in the bustling industry. Immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the world converged in the mid-1800s through the early 1900s to work in sugar and pineapple plantations providing labor support.

Filipino labor workers who became part of the workforce during Hawaii’s agricultural era.
Photo Credit: Hawaii State Archives, Reference PP-21-1-025

Plantation work was physically intense and required workers to have proper nourishment. Many of them would bring their lunches in portable tin containers featuring the ethnic tradition of their origin. For example, the Japanese would have teriyaki-based meats while Filipinos would have dishes like chicken adobo. What was common among the largely Asian labor force in terms of cuisine was that many of them included rice with their meals. Naturally, the people who worked together shared their meals and with that their lives. Many of them became family to one another, being away from the loved ones of their place of origin, many thousands of miles away.  The celebrations of life extend beyond the workplace and include gatherings of the families of the workers, becoming the impetus of Hawaii’s large number of people who are of multiple ethnicities. Not to be remised, the gatherings of the workers became the extension of the sharing of the cultures, which many times included food. The rich Hawaii tradition of comingling various ethnic foods on one table found its true footing during Hawaii’s agricultural years.

Hawaii’s agricultural economy eventually saw a shift towards other economic opportunities as western culture, particularly that of the United States of America came into the mix. Still, the collective heavily Asian-influenced society at the time remained with the local island culture, especially with its food traditions. The urbanization of Hawaii ushered in economic opportunities, especially in the form of restaurants. A popular type of restaurant that emerged from this was the okazuya restaurant which became the marketplace for the “evolved” version of the cuisines shared among the local island communities. Okazu, meaning “side dish” in Japanese provided a variety of offerings that customers could choose from to create their own custom meals. Similarly, eateries like okazuya restaurants would offer “pre-packed” offerings in the form of bentos, taking a page out of the Japanese tradition of the bento-box, but with a Hawaii-influenced twist. While Hawaii’s local community continued to transition into the new post-agricultural economy, American influence, especially through Hawaii’s role in World War II, became more prevalent in many facets of Hawaii life. The local Hawaii cuisine was also subject to this as its cuisine would pop up in the form of hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, and what is now known as Hawaii’s favorite food – SPAM®. In addition to the already established okazuya restaurants, other eateries that took on the American “drive-in” concept emerged.

Places like Kau-kau (a derived Chinese word meaning “eat” in local Hawaii vernacular) Korner in Honolulu emerged as one of many “drive-in” restaurants in Hawaii. 
Photo Credit: Kodak Hawaii via the Hawaii State Archives, Reference PP-4-6-001

While many drive-in restaurants offered popular American treats, these places also offered a new take on popular Hawaii cuisine, that affectionately became the plate lunch. Back then, one could find hearty mash-up flavors like chili on top of spaghetti with a hot dog alongside more traditional and basic dishes such as roast beef on the menu. Plate lunches would vary on side accompaniments, but rice and macaroni salad remained the most popular serving with the main entrée of choice. The plate lunch menu evolved the Hawaii tradition of blending various flavors that had something for everyone in the community.

There were many drive-in restaurants around Oahu. One of them was a small shop called L & L. Primarily known for its milk offerings as L & L Dairy that started in 1952, the outlet eventually transitioned out of the dairy business and into a local eatery that served Hawaii’s collective ethnic & American cuisines fused in plate-lunch form.

A vintage photo of the Liliha L & L Drive-Inn on Liliha St.
Photo Credit: L & L

In the mid-1970s Eddie Flores and Johnson Kam took over L & L and, in the years following, would make innovations to the plate lunch such as offering smaller “mini plates” as well as offering “healthier options” that replaced the carbohydrate-heavy white rice and macaroni salad with green salad brown rice. The duo also duplicated their successful restaurant formula across many of the islands, eventually overflowing into the continental United States in 1999 under the name “L & L Hawaiian Barbecue.” The “Hawaiian Barbecue” term was coined by Eddie Flores, Jr. who shared with me in my early years with the company that he created the term to help people identify with the food easier.

Johnson Kam & Eddie Flores, the dynamic duo who took Hawaii’s cuisine beyond Hawaii’s cuisine beyond the islands to the world.
Photo Credit: L & L

The bold move by Flores and Kam to introduce a regionally known cuisine, mainly confined to Hawaii to the continental United States didn’t come easy. Flores masterfully led L & L’s branding and franchise business approach at the corporate level in Hawaii while Kam courageously led the on-the-ground effort, taking the risk to open in unestablished cities and markets; eventually splitting his time between Hawaii and the areas where he opened locations.  To support the growth of L & L, Flores and Kam found others who were interested in the franchise opportunity they co-founded.  They became the franchisees of L & L who open and spread the presence of L & L franchised restaurants across multiple locales and states.

Me (1st from left, first row) with L & L visionary Eddie Flores (2nd from left, first row) meeting with San Diego Franchisees in 2006. 
Photo Credit: L & L

In many of these areas such as San Diego, the Bay Area, Seattle, etc., L & L found a cult-like following of many Hawaii local “kamaaina” turned transplants to the continent who longed for a taste of home. In fact, their affinity to Hawaii and the L & L brand is an integral part of the success of the brand; and they still are L & L’s most loyal customers to this day. They are also our greatest ambassadors, constantly sharing freshly cooked, large-portioned plates with friends and family who are not familiar with the flavors of Hawaii.  But let me tell you, once they get their friends to bite into a SPAM® musubi (a block of sauce-flavored white rice topped with a slice of SPAM® and wrapped with a piece of nori seaweed), or a loco moco (hamburger and gravy topped with egg covering a bed of rice), they’re hooked!

L & L Hawaiian barbecue outside of the islands offers “Hawaii fast-casual cuisine” with a similar menu to that of its Hawaii counterparts such as the BBQ mix plate, chicken katsu, and kalua pork. Eventually, the SPAM® musubi was added after strong demand from local kamaaina (the term referring to residents who live/once lived in the islands) who yearned for their favorite Hawaii snack. Eventually, L & L would grow from a single outlet in Los Angeles and find its popularity among many cities throughout California and beyond.

The trail that L & L blazed through the early 2000s to now continues to be the inspiration for a variety of restaurants that have developed their own Hawaii-influenced cuisine to follow. Still, L & L continues to be the leader in sharing Hawaii’s quintessential local Hawaii cuisine with the world. This includes celebrating the history, traditions, and years of diversity, and community that is an integral part of it. And reflecting on the 70-year history of the brand that started as a local island dairy to becoming the most well-known vehicle for introducing Hawaii cuisine to the world, it has been an honor of the ride that continues the commitment to bringing authentic, Hawaii-rooted, intricately infused multiethnic flavors with the world with a spirit of Aloha; celebrated with every delicious plate lunch that is brought into the world to enjoy!  Cheers!

Brandon Dela Cruz is the Director of Marketing for L & L Hawaiian Barbecue.  He has been with the company since the early 2000s and has seen the growth of the company from several dozen to over 225 locations throughout several U.S. States and Japan.

Politics Hawaii with Stan Fichtman invites writers from different perspectives to share their knowledge and mana’o on subjects affecting Hawaii and how Hawaii sees issues that are happening around the world. If you are interested in pitching a story, please go to the “Contact Us” portal on this website and submit a pitch.