Of course Tucson is a land locked city, but that does not mean you should be afraid to eat fish here. The advent of proper refrigeration and the notion of overnight delivery allows us to enjoy some of the best quality product from the sea or river and, luckily for us, we have some skilled and resourceful chefs that offer up pure miracles from underwater provisions.
If you are fortunate enough to meet up with a talented cook that hails from an island territory, you just might be treated to dishes that will transport you to a beachfront food stand where the fish you are about to eat reeks pleasantly from the salty waves and tastes of fleshy, briny repute. If you cannot afford to travel to a tropical getaway at present but are craving a bowl of marinated ahi over rice and have a few bucks in your pocket, all you have to do is get to a cozy place on River and Craycroft that is nestled between a Whole Foods and library branch to experience real Hawaiian cooking.
"The poke bowl also comes with a rich crab salad, two different kinds of tobiko, a seaweed salad, fresh avocado, nori, and then I finish it with some edamame and my own secret sauce that I can't tell you about right now," says Island Plate Lunch's chef and owner Renee Eder, who smiles wide and giggles as she describes the epicness, and secrecy, of their signature dish, which is a tower of color and big island flavor. In fact, the namesake of her restaurant comes from a Hawaiian term for grabbing a quick bite.
"A plate lunch is just something someone gets on their way to somewhere when they're hungry, like some chicken over rice or even a Spam musubi, which is a delicacy from where I come from in Honolulu."
Spam masubi is basically a chunk of the popular canned salted meat over a block of rice and then wrapped in nori (seaweed). It may sound weird to land lubber mainlanders such as ourselves, but somehow the simplicity of it all totally works. And, yes, you can get some Spam masubi at Island Plate Lunch amongst a boat load of other dishes from Renee's home turf.
"It was my grandmother that got me into cooking," Renee notes as she plates up her Loco Moco, a flavorful volcanic eruption consisting of a juicy burger patty over rice then generously ladled with a thick brown gravy before getting topped with two, sometimes more if you're super hungry, sunny side eggs. "My husband, Justin, was an architect so we traveled all over, eventually ending up in Las Vegas. At the time I was doing admin work and was a stay at home mom...I was very bored. So, he enlisted me in culinary school and from there I got to work with chef Pierre Gagnaire at his restaurant Twist in the Mandarin Oriental hotel and casino. I even got to help cater Steve Wynn's wedding which was very cool."
It was Renee and Justin's daughter that brought them to Tucson as she enrolled in the UA. Missing the food from their island home, they noticed pretty quickly the lack of Hawaiian fare in the Sonoran desert. When the space they currently reside in opened up they took the plunge and have been gaining a lot of local fame for their cuisine and laidback social hospitality. They even installed a large communal table in the small space which is very important to the Eder family.
"We want this table to bring people together," Justin says with a smile. "Everyone here seems to be in a big hurry, not talking to each other. In Hawaii eating usually means family time and we want everyone who comes here to be part of our family, our 'ohana."
It's the family recipe for their chicken katsu that will bring us all together, an entirely uncomplicated yet wholly complex dish of perfectly fried boneless chicken served with rice and drizzled with their own take on the island BBQ inspired sauce. And if it isn't any of the chicken, sausage, egg, fish, beef, pork or Spam dishes that will give Tucson island fever, their peanut butter and jelly banh mi just might become an incurable, and welcomingly so, sickness.
"I make my own pepper jelly, which is a little hot, and a peanut butter sauce," grins Renee, knowing and coyly impish. "It pairs really well with the pork belly. You think it would be strange but it is actually really delicious."
Island Plate Lunch opens at 7 a.m. and serves breakfast until 10:30 a.m., which a lot of people don't know about. But if you are in the area, stop by and try one of their liege waffles, which are denser and sweeter than the ones we are used to due to the caramelization from the pearl sugar they use. Put their chicken katsu on top of one of them and you'll happily drift into a savory reef of deliciousness never wanting to return to life on the mainland again.