Loco Moco Weird? It’s In the Tastebuds of the Beholder
The loco moco – a dish consisting of layers of rice, hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy – has been named by Food & Wine magazine as one of its “Weirdest Regional Foods.”
Some of the 21 dishes are more elaborate, like the “turducken” – a chicken stuffed inside a duck inside a turkey.
Others are more visceral, such as chitlins, (deep-fried pig intestines popular in the South), the well-known but unnerving Rocky Mountain oysters (sliced, deep-fried bull testicles eaten in the West) or the curiously named scrapple (a baked mixture of pig head, organs and skin popularized by the Pennsylvania Dutch).
But the loco moco is likely the only one that spread from small-town fare to a dish popular with the international set.
Food and Wine writer Alex Van Buren notes the loco moco is one of Hawaii’s most popular comfort foods. Born in 1949 at the Lincoln Grill, it was developed as an inexpensive and filling dish for members of the Lincoln Wreckers youth athletic club.
Van Buren notes that while the Lincoln Grill no longer exists, chef Sam Choy offers a “stellar traditional version” at his Kai Lanai restaurant in Kona.
That may be, but the mecca of the loco moco is definitely Café 100 restaurant in Hilo.
Café 100 owner Gail Miyashiro acknowledges that the restaurant founded in 1946 by her father Richard didn’t invent the dish, but certainly has taken it to heart. The Kilauea Avenue establishment offers about 30 varieties, with the meat portion varying from beef to spam to hot dogs. There are also fish and vegetable versions.
Today, along with a variety of plate lunches, the restaurant’s specials included a yakitori chicken loco moco, while the sign out front offered one with salmon.
While one can get more upscale versions with fine cuts of beef at fancier restaurants – Miyashiro saw one costing $18 at Nordstrom’s in Honolulu recently – Café 100’s basic loco moco remains true to its roots at $2.75 per serving.
Miyashiro said the granddaddy is the Super Loco, where $5.75 will buy you two-scoop rice, a hamburger patty, Spam, Portuguese sausage and two eggs. “And gravy of course,” she added.
While local demand has always been strong, Café 100 has seen an increasing number of tourists, mostly from Asia, clamoring for its signature dish.
“Tours have been formed around the local moco, amazingly,” Miyashiro said, adding that apparently the loco moco has developed a cult-like following in Japan.
One tour in particular visits many of the usual sites around Hilo and then makes its last stop at Café 100 where each tourist receives a local moco – with a green salad added to round out the meal with some vegetables.
Along with pictures of lava and other scenic sites, the Japanese-language website for the Kona-based Hawaii Loco Tours features pictures of Café 100 and a super loco.
It is also not uncommon to see busloads of tourists posing for photos in front of the restaurant’s sign.
And it’s not just the Japanese; Miyashiro said she’s seeing more Korean and Chinese patrons too.
Miyashiro said basically, the loco moco has taken on a life of its own. Except for local advertising, where Café 100 is known as the “home of the loco moco,” there has been no major promotional effort.
“It’s something we have fun with,” she said. “It’s not fine cuisine.”
But then, none of the magazine’s weirdest regional selections would fit that bill. Alligator sausage, fried diamondback rattlesnake, reindeer hotdogs and three-foot-long geoduck clams have all made the list.
Some of the more classic examples could be distant relatives of the loco moco.
That includes Texas’ Frito pie, a “guaranteed-messy” casserole consisting of Fritos topped with chili and cheese sometimes referred to as a “walking taco.” Afficionados know that in a pinch one can forego the bowl and just lay the bag on its side, slit it open and pour on the goodies.
And then there is the “Garbage Plate” from Upstate New York. Described by the magazine as “couch-potato food at its most slovenly,” this three-pound monster consists of macaroni salad and potatoes topped with some sort of meat (anything from hot dogs and meat patties to sausage and steak) along with mustard and a sprinkling of chopped onions.