It’s not particularly tropical, but it’s quintessentially Hawaiian.
When you envisage eating your first meal on a beautiful Hawaiian island, you’re likely succumbing to mouth-watering ideas of fresh fish or shrimp with a crisp and refreshing tropical fruit salsa. But if you want a truly Hawaiian experience, you’ll want to replace that plate of seafood with a bowl of rice, hamburger, brown gravy, and fried eggs—or what’s known in Hawaii as loco moco.
Loco moco is an aggressively comforting food—it’s warm, mouth-coating, and yes, cholesterol heavy, as all good comfort foods often are.
It’s also a comfort food that belongs to Hawaii and its unique history and place in the world.
The story goes that loco moco was created at the entreaties of cash-strapped, perpetually hungry members of the Lincoln Wreckers Athletic Club, a group of teeangers who played barefoot football in Hilo, a rainy town on Hawaii’s Big Island. These teens were known to hang out at the Lincoln Grill, a Hilo diner owned and operated by Richard and Nancy Inouye that has since shuttered its doors. There, they’d order up songs on the jukebox, play hands of cards, and, yes, keep the kitchen hopping with their orders for American hamburgers and Asian breakfasts.
In 1949, however, these ravenous rascals pleaded with the Inouyes to create a dish that was filling and, more importantly, affordable. After all, in post World War II Hawaii, teens didn’t have a lot of running-around money in their pockets.
What came next is lost a bit to history and time. Hawai’i Magazine writes that the diners were served a heaping bowl of steamed rice, a hamburger patty, and an egg smothered with brown gravy. The Honolulu Advertiser says the egg was not part of the original fare, that it came later as other Hawaii restaurants started to adapt the dish to their menus.
After the first offering, Elaine wrote the dish’s description on the restaurant’s menu. The name, island folklore suggests, was in honor of a member of the Athletic Club whose nickname was crazy, or “loco” in Portuguese and Hawaiian. Moco, it turns out, may have been picked because it just rhymed.
With that, the Inouyes served up the first loco moco, and they secured their place in Hawaiian culinary history.
Today, you can find loco moco served at fast-food restaurants, roadside diners, and mom-and-pop places on every one of the Hawaiian islands. You might even see it in restaurants on the U.S. West Coast and on Pacific islands like Samoa, Guam, even Japan.
Some of the dishes will be the very basic original recipe—sticky, steamed rice, browned hamburger patties, sunny-side-up or over-easy fried eggs, and a heaping ladle of rich brown gravy. Some, however, will be a bit more creative, even high-end.
Prime rib and ahi are all commonly served with versions of loco moco. Braised pork and short ribs aren’t unfamiliar either. For a truly Hawaiian twist, spam and Portuguese sausage are often available in place of the patty as well.
My first experience with loco moco came on the island of Kauai, at a little hole-in-the-wall diner called Ginas Anykine Grinds Cafe. There, a loco moco came with two scoops of rice, two hamburger patties, two fried eggs, and a generous serving of brown gravy.
Blessedly, for my arteries, you can also order a miniature version, with just one of every main component. Gina’s, departing from the original, also comes with a serving of sauteed Maui onions, a welcome departure that was reminiscent of a Southern hamburger steak.
My second experience, also on Kauai, was a bit more upscale. At The Lanai Restaurant and Bar in Koloa, loco moco was served with a braised short rib atop truffle risotto.
It doesn’t matter how far you stray in the name of making this comforting dish more high-end or “special,” the fact remains that loco moco is truly unique to Hawaii, its traditions, and the wonderful people who live there and call it home.