Motorists on Wilson Street in Brewer over the past month may have had similar reactions when they drive by the brown building across from the Brewer Public Pool: Just what the heck is Hawaiian barbecue?
Ken and Lisa Wong will be happy to tell you, provided you stop by their new establishment, WowWee Hawaiian BBQ, which opened last month in the former location of Thai Charda. The Wongs, who previously opened Fresh Ginger in Hampden, are the first to bring the popular fast-food style to Maine from out West.
“We knew how popular it was out West. It’s a household name out there. It’s everywhere,” said Lisa Wong, who moved with her husband to California five years ago, but returned with him to Maine back in January. “Why not try it here? If they like it there, they’ll probably like it here.”
Hawaiian barbecue is based on the concept of a “plate lunch.” L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, which has more than 200 locations in the western United States and in New York, popularized the style nationwide. Essentially, it is made up of a scoop of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and an entree, which usually is meat of some sort.
Its roots come out of the confluence of cultures in Hawaii. The Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers who labored on the fruit plantations throughout the 20th century all brought their own culinary traditions to the melting pot, which already had traditional American food co-existing with Polynesian dishes. As cultures melded, different foods began to show up on the same menu.
“It’s a mixture of things. It’s like a mixing of cultures,” said Lisa Wong. “Everybody likes everybody else’s food.”
Thus, the plate lunch represents a wide variety of styles. Chinese-style sesame chicken pairs with hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Fried eggs and Southern-style gravy can be ordered, as can Pad Thai. Chicken and pork katsu, usually seen at sushi restaurants, can be on the same plate as barbecued steak. It doesn’t matter which culture it comes from: Comfort food is comfort food, and that’s essentially what Hawaiian barbecue is.
When the Wongs left Maine for California five years ago, Ken Wong went to work in a Hawaiian barbecue franchise. He grew intimately familiar with the style. After several years of life on the West Coast, however, the couple had grown to miss the climate and people of Maine. Early in 2010, they moved back to the area. Within a few months, the plan to open a Hawaiian barbecue in Maine had been hatched. The couple began work on WowWee in June and opened in August.
“Maine needs something different,” said Lisa Wong. “If people can learn to like Hawaiian barbecue and learn what it’s all about, they’ll definitely acquire the taste. It’s something you can just come in and pick up and bring home to your family, and there’s something for everybody.”
The cheery, tropical-colored signs out front and decor inside the Wilson Street restaurant make it clear that it’s family-style food. Diners can order a variety of appetizers, or head straight for the plate lunches. The Hawaiian BBQ Chicken on the menu is a tangy strip of white meat grilled in the house-made Hawaiian sauce, while the Salt and Pepper Pork is breaded and fried, and topped with deliciously crunchy, spicy bits of garlic, sesame seeds and salt and pepper.
The portions are quite large, so come hungry, or order a party tray to share with friends, family and co-workers. If you’re really, really hungry, you can try the Loco Moco, which consists of white rice topped with a hamburger patty and two fried eggs, smothered in gravy. Everything comes with white rice and macaroni salad, which boasts creamy mayo, tuna and pasta. It’s definitely not health food, but it is awfully tasty.
Just a warning, if you’re looking for a fancy sit-down lunch or dinner, this isn’t the place. Meals are served in take-out containers whether you eat in or head home to dine, and the silverware is of the plastic persuasion.
“People have been curious. They want to know what it is, so they stop in and look at the menu,” said Lisa Wong. “I think they expect to have a lot of pineapple. That’s not really what Hawaiian barbecue is, but I guess we’ll add more dishes with pineapple. You can have whatever you want.”
WowWee Hawaiian BBQ is located at 347 Wilson St. in Brewer. Call 989-3331 to order; you also can order through One Call Bangor, at www.onecallbangor.com. WowWee is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.