EVANS MILLS Tucked into a nondescript strip mall just outside Fort Drums north gate on Route 11 is L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
This is not a fast-food restaurant that popped up overnight. L&L has been the McDonalds of Hawaii for many decades. Its claim to fame is serving fresh plate lunches the comfort food of the islands in generous portions. In the late 90s the owners began franchising L&L Hawaiian Barbecues and now have more than 200 locations around the world.
The eatery offers an eclectic menu of traditional Hawaiian, South Pacific fusion and American dishes. Chicken katsu (breaded chicken with dipping sauce). Beef curry. Kalua pork with cabbage (smoked, shredded pork). Mahi mahi. Loco moco (hamburger patties, two eggs and gravy). Spam musubi (Hawaiian sushi). Saimin (fresh ramen noodle soup). Shrimp curry.
It took some time to understand the many menu options. Large photos on the walls helped.
Our real ace in the hole was one of my guests, a genuine born-and-bred Hawaiian who makes his home in the north country. He explained that L&L Barbecue was a mainstay growing up in Honolulu.
He told us that the traditional Hawaiian plate lunch consists of two scoops of rice, a serving of macaroni salad and a serving of a hot entrée.
We learned that kalua is a cooking method that combines roasting and steaming in a large pit lined with glowing-hot volcanic rocks. Meat is wrapped in ti, ginger or banana leaves, put in the pit, then covered with wet leaves, mats and layers of earth.
We were pretty sure there was no volcanic pit in the parking lot behind the J&J Plaza. But whatever they did to the meat, it was mighty tasty.
Lau lau combo ($10.99) consisted of a portion of delicious braised pork wrapped in taro leaves. The leaves were soft, almost mushy, and reminded us of the taste of canned spinach.
The combo plate also included a portion of kalua pork moist and tender shredded meat, similar to pulled pork blended with steamed cabbage. It was good by itself, but even better when you add little sriracha chili sauce (available at the complimentary condiment end of the counter) to give it a little more kick and depth of flavor.
The two versions of pork were perfectly complemented by the steamed rice and the yummy macaroni salad. A filling and satisfying meal.
Saimin is a plantation era-inspired noodle soup unique to Hawaii. It includes elements from Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian and Portuguese cultures. L&Ls barbecue chicken saimin ($3.99) was first-rate, a large container of tasty dashi (Japanese stock) with a good amount of sliced chicken and soft wheat ramen noodles.
Fried mahi mahi platter ($8.99) was not made with mahi mahi (the Hawaiian name for dolphin). Although the bright, colorful photo on the walls indicated it was mahi mahi, the counter lady told us that its difficult to get mahi mahi in the north country, so the franchise allowed them to substitute whitefish.
The unavailability of mahi mahi here is not 100 percent true. What is true is that it is quite expensive, so substituting a less expensive type of fish enables them to realize their expected profit margin. The fish was just fine, as it turned out, some sort of flaky whitefish that was more like perch, not the slightly steaky texture of mahi. The light tempura batter had a hint of spice (Chinese five spice powder?). It came with rice and mac salad and a typical American version of tartar sauce.
We tried the Spam musubi ($2.10) more out of curiosity than anything else. It was a small rectangle of sticky rice with a slice of Spam on top, wrapped in a ribbon of nori (dried seaweed). A unique taste sensation with its salty pork, sweet rice and distinctive seaweed flavor.
While Spam is the brunt of many jokes, our Hawaiian friend explained that Spam was a staple in Hawaiian cuisine in World War II and has remained popular.
There are no alcoholic beverages available at L&L, but theres a cooler full of assorted American soft drinks and juices, as well as Aloha Maid Natural Hawaiian brand beverages. As with all of their products, the lilikoi passion fruit we tried contains no high fructose corn syrup and no artificial flavorings. Very enjoyable.
Lunch for three cost $32.45.
The restaurant is clean and sparse and set up like most other small fast food joints. You place your order at the counter, get your drink from the cooler, pick out your table or booth and wait for your order to be called.
Everything is served in Styrofoam takeout containers. Utensils, like the tables, are plastic.
A few closing quotes from our native Hawaiian lunchmate:
As we say in Hawaii, the kau kau (food) was ono (good). I had a gratifying dining experience. The 50th state meets the Empire state just outside Watertown.
I particularly enjoyed the lau lau and kalua pork and cabbage just like I remembered it from home yummy.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue
26390A Route 11 (J&J Plaza)
Evans Mills, N.Y.
Traditional Hawaiian lunch plates have come to the north country.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week
OUR FAVORITES: Lau Lau Combo (kalua pork and lau lau), barbecue chicken saimin (noodle soup), Aloha Maid lilikoi (passion fruit) drink