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REVIEW: Hawaiian Time Serves Plate Lunches and Island Vibes (Subscriber Content)

By Kyle Young
Published: Last Updated on

Many Reno and Sparks locals are pleased to see Hawaiian Time in the Sparks Mercantile shopping center finally open. Hawaiian-style plate lunches are the main attraction. The plate lunches include rice, macaroni salad and the diner’s choice of marinated beef, chicken, pork or grilled veggies. The franchise restaurant also offers sandwiches and Chinese chicken salad.

Hawaiian Plate Lunches Predate Hawaiian-Inspired Franchises

I wasn’t especially familiar with the plate lunch concept and its origin before today. The take-out menu at Hawaiian Time identifies the meal concept as: “A traditional part of the cuisine of Hawaii, the plate lunch consists of two scoops of white rice, a scoop of mac salad, and your choice of main entrée.”

$2 Hawaiian Sun cans at
Hawaiian Time.
Image: Kyle Young

After a cursory stroll through the interweb, I read that plate lunches date back to the 1880’s in Hawaii. Around that time, laborers for fruit and sugar plantations were brought in from a variety of countries including Japan, China, Portugal and the Philippines. The laborers craved foods from home, but access was limited. Looking for compromise, the laborers settled for plates of rice alongside leftover meat, canned meat, gravy-covered meat, eggs and pickles. Macaroni salad wasn’t the original side of choice, but it quickly became a plate lunch staple due to its multicultural appeal.

As time passed, more and more groups sought plate lunches. Lunch wagons and mom and pop eateries in Hawaii seemed to get in first. Then came free-standing plate lunch spots in Hawaii. The most recent phenomenon of the plate lunch evolution is the franchise. According to the same source, the first plate lunch franchise hit California in 1999.

I’m unsure of when the Hawaiian Time franchise began, but it seems the chain originated in Oregon. If I’m not mistaken, our Sparks location is their first location outside Oregon.

Hawaiian Time Nails the Beach Theme

Beach decor at restaurant
Beach decor. Image: Kyle Young

Open entering Hawaiian Time, my wife and I noticed the well-chosen paint and décor. Diners will enjoy bar stools painted robin egg blue, vinyl paneling that simulates reclaimed wood and pop beach art that reinforces the surf scene. White paint, the faux reclaimed wood and the robin egg blue seating makes the whole place feel open and spacious. Pop reggae and surf rock further pull together the beach feel of the restaurant.

The friendly cashier at the ordering counter explained the concept of a plate lunch and their various meal sizes. Dakine indicates small; regular indicates medium; Alii indicates large. I appreciate the adherence to theme, but the meal-size jargon stifled the flow of ordering.

Why Do We Keep Excusing Poorly Seasoned and Poorly Cooked Vegetables?

My wife ordered a cup of water with a dakine-size (small) Vegetarian Plate Lunch for $6.50. The menu description of the plate reads: “Fresh, locally grown, and seasonal veggies infused with deep flavor on the grill.” Also served with the veggies was a half scoop of rice and a half scoop of the mac salad. My wife and I agreed that the rice was well-cooked, and the mac salad was subtly tasty. The noodles in the mac salad were cooked perfectly and tasted of sour cream, mayo, lots of cracked black pepper and a dash of celery salt.

Stir-fried veggies, mac salad and white rice.
Vegetarian Plate Lunch at Hawaiian Time. Image: Kyle Young

The veggies in my wife’s entrée included broccoli, yellow squash, snap peas, mushrooms, carrots and onions tossed with what seemed like a whisper of “teriyaki sauce”. The vegetables were sad looking, a bit chewy and didn’t possess the “deep flavor” that the menu described.

Flame-grilled vegetables have char marks, crispy bits and smoky flavor; the veggies in my wife’s dish had none. I assume the restaurant has access to an open-flame grill, because they sell flame-grilled chicken. In fairness to Hawaiian Time, they say the veggies are grilled and not flame-grilled.

A poorly executed vegetable side dish is disappointing, but a poorly executed vegetable entrée is hard to forgive. Steamed vegetables (as is common in steakhouses, Chinese take-out, diners and many family-style restaurants) and barely stir-fried vegetables (Hawaiian Time) make people think that vegetables are best enjoyed by impotent prey animals. I’m not sure why we regularly accept vegetable mediocrity. Roasted veggies, flame-grilled veggies and pan-fried veggies can steal the show when done correctly.

My wife was not as off-put as I was, but she agreed that these veggies were not doing the food group any justice. It’s safe to say that vegetables are not the primary focus of Hawaiian Time, so maybe they deserve a bigger out. It’s also not lost on me that perhaps I expect too much from a fast-casual franchise. That said, every dish on a small menu, as it is at Hawaiian Time, should bring something worthwhile to the table.

Sweet Meat and Robust Portions

I ordered the regular-size Mauna Loa Chicken Plate Lunch ($8.95) and a can of passion orange Hawaiian Sun ($2). Diners select if they want the chicken cooked “original” or flame-grilled. I opted for flame-grilled.

Mauna Loa
Chicken Plate Lunch.
Image: Kyle Young

The menu describes the dish as: “Volcanic Fury in a mouth-watering dish. Grilled, boneless chicken in our sweet and spicy lava sauce. Akahele– take caution!” This dish tasted nine-parts sweet and one-part heat, making it difficult to justify descriptors such as “volcanic fury” and “spicy lava sauce”. After looking through the take-out menu after the meal, I realized that the restaurant advertises a heat scale with heat levels ranging from normal to mild to medium to hot to “Super Hawaiian”. If the cashier mentioned this heat scale, I missed it.

Despite the base-level of heat being nearly non-existent, I enjoyed that the flame-grilled chicken was tender, fatty and well-charred. The boneless pieces seemed to be a combination of breast meat and thighs. The flavor reminded me of the Mandarin chicken I used to get in the food court of Meadowood Mall 15 years ago. The portion was generous, and the chicken was well-sauced. After I hit the chicken with some Sriracha, I enjoyed it much more. In my meal, too, I thought the rice and mac salad were pretty tasty.

The condiment bar next to the fountain drink machine offered soy sauce, teriyaki sauce and Sriracha. Note that restaurant advertises that all the sauces and marinades are gluten-free and vegan. I’m not sure what kind of soy sauce they offer, so if gluten ruins your day, I’d double-check to confirm the gluten-free status of the sauce.

I cannot certify that any aspect of our meals was reminiscent of what you’d find in Hawaii’s best plate lunch spots; I’ve never been to Hawaii. I will say that Hawaiian Time offers prompt and friendly service, tasty flame-grilled chicken, large portions, enjoyable sides and a well-done beach vibe.

Hawaiian Time’s Details

Visit Hawaiian Time at 2855 N. McCarran Blvd. #106, Sparks, NV 89431. They are open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and open on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call in your pick-up order at 775-376-1227. Visit Hawaiian Time online at hawaiiantime.com.