I view the world through a food-colored lens and it definitely is a focus when I travel. One of the best things about traveling to lands near and far is the discovery of unique dishes. The world is a smaller place these days and you can get just about anything anywhere, so it is really cool when you can try a truly local dish in the place it was created.
And in Hilo, Hawaii, that dish is loco moco.
I am not going to tell you it is gourmet. I am not going to say it is good for you.
But I will say it is unique, delicious and worth a try.
Loco Moco History
The dish was created in 1949 at the Lincoln Grill (which closed in the 60″s). Local kids hanging out at the restaurant after a football game were doing what teenagers usually do, being loud, causing trouble and Nancy Inouye (one of the owners) yelled at them asking why they never ate at the restaurant. They said they couldn’t afford it and asked that the owners to come up with something faster and cheaper than the traditional bento boxes and hamburger steaks that were available.
I have been reading a lot about Hawaiian history and in the 30’s and 40’s high school football support was at a frenzy. Four-year universities in the islands (and the athletics that came along with schools that size) came late, so high school football players were treated like gods. So when the Lincoln Wreckers Sports club asked for a new dish, it isn’t hard to imagine Nancy jumping on their request, putting some rice in a bowl with a hamburger patty and then topping it with brown gravy (the egg came later).
And thus loco moco was born.
As for the name, there are a couple of versions as to how that came about:
> The teenagers named the dish Loco Moco after one of their members whose nickname was “Crazy.” (Loco in Spanish) They tacked on “moco” which rhymed with loco and sounded good.
> Richard, Nancy’s husband and the restaurant’s cook, said, “The kids are crazy. Call it loco moco.”
> “Loco” was merely the use of Hawaiian Pidgin, and meant “Local.” And Moco was added on to rhyme.
Needless to say, whatever its exact origin, Hilo is where loco moco was born and Hilo is a great place to explore its history.
From 1949 onward it has been a constant on the menus of many Hilo restaurants as well as throughout all the islands.
These days there is a huge variety of loco moco with all kinds of deviations in meat, rice, gravy you name it. I think you would need to spend at least two months to get through all the types of loco moco available!
Loco moco in Hilo
I had big plans for my loco moco adventures in Hilo. I researched. I studied. I mapped out when and where I would tackle my targets, but in the end, I could only manage to eat it twice. Loco Moco is delicious, but it is a lot of food. And heavy food, and I didn’t want to leave Hilo a hundred pounds heavier. Loco Moco is not a dish you eat every day!
Where I had planned to go (based on research):
> Café 100, 969 Kilauea Avenue one of the oldest restaurants serving loco moco.
> Ken’s Pancake House, 1730 Kamehameha Ave
> Kuhio Grill, 111 E Puainako St
> Hawaiian Style Café, 681 Manono St
Where I ended up:
First stop was Kuhio Grill, a truly local spot discreetly placed in a shopping center, hard to find if you aren’t really looking. My guess is they like it that way. I am pretty sure I was the only non-local in the restaurant. The wait staff is super friendly and I needed plenty of time to review the menu, it is massive! After a gentle reminder that I was there for loco moco, I placed my order for a chicken katsu version (I wasn’t quite feeling a desire for a hamburger that night).
If there is an illustration associated with the definition of “umami” it is the gravy that Kuhio Grill serves over their loco moco plate. I ate quite a few bites of just gravy before digging in deeper to taste the katsu chicken and fried rice. I kept going in for spoon after spoon and didn’t stop until it was already too late. I ate way more than I should of and was stuffed for many hours!
My first loco moco? Yeah, it was a hit.
The next night I went to Café 100, one of the oldest restaurants serving loco moco. I got the original classic: rice, hamburger patty, and gravy, with an egg of course. It came in a human-sized portion.
I think I had been avoiding the original version because I grew up eating Salisbury steak which I hated and I think loco moco with hamburger reminded me of it. And while I do think I prefer other proteins, this was really, really good. I am a sucker for gravy, especially brown gravy, I had that a lot as a kid over mash potatoes or rice and loved it, still do.
The Café 100 version is the real deal! P.S. They have great beef stew too!
I did also end up at Hawaiian Style Café when I had lunch with Megan (who I met last year in Hilo) but I ended up ordering a mixed plate [Check out my post on the mixed plate on the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau blog, So Much More Hawaii]. I did witness a couple of people trying out their famous loco-moco-saurus, a MASSIVE portion!
Also, the hubby had breakfast at Ken’s Pancake House where he had a “slam” omelet. He constantly calls SPAM, slam, it’s so cute! He missed out on a great loco moco experience, they are supposed to have the best gravy in town.
There are a ton of diners and drive-ins in Hilo and most of them serve a version of loco moco, so like I said, you can try different ones for weeks!
My loco moco tips
I learned a few things on my mission, and I’ve got a few tips to share:
> If you have loco moco on the agenda for the day, skip the meal right before. If you plan to eat it for lunch, skip breakfast. Dinner? Skip lunch. Trust me on this one!
> Try the original first before trying any of the other varieties. It is a classic for a reason and a good source of comparison.
> It’s all about the gravy. Read reviews. If people rave about the gravy, get a move on. If people say its “ok” skip it and try someplace else, I think the gravy makes or breaks the experience.
> Spread out your experiences. I ate loco moco two days in a row then I was kind of over it. It is delicious but heavy so spread out your meals and your experiences, you will enjoy it more.
> Buddy system. These plates are massive, go with a friend and share one plate, you will feel better about yourself!
How about you? Any more tips to add?
I really like this post from Big Island Guru, check out Letting your taste buds go loco.
Loco moco in San Francisco
Have to plug my hometown! There are several places in the city that have great versions of loco moco including Namu Gaji, Grindz, and Aina. Check out my post on Hawaiian food in San Francisco for more places that serve loco moco and other Hawaiian food dishes.
How about you? Have you had loco moco before? Where? How? What do you think?