Cafe Reviews

Leo's Island BBQ Brings Peoria a Taste of Hawaii

For those who prefer their carb and protein loads delivered via a plastic foam container, there may not be a more perfect meal than the Hawaiian plate lunch.

Featuring a steaming mass of rice, a scoop of mayonnaise-heavy macaroni salad, and mountains of meat piled into a white Styrofoam takeout box, the plate lunch is to Hawaiians what the meat-and-three plate is to Southerners: comfort food served up fast, without a fuss, and on the cheap.

Leo's Island BBQ in Peoria makes a very good Hawaiian plate lunch. A good thing, too, since it's quite possibly the only place serving island-inspired food in this part of the Valley. Located on a stretch of Bell Road overloaded with chain restaurants, the counter-service eatery was opened in December 2010 by husband-and-wife team Leo and Lily Lee. Originally from Hong Kong, the two came to the Valley from California 10 years ago, with Leo working at another Hawaiian restaurant in the Valley before opening his own place.

"Because of the area, a lot of people think Leo's is a chain," says employee Eric Oho, "but everything here is cooked to order, lightly prepared and not oily, and without any MSG."

Drawing on the history of the Hawaiian plate lunch — which dates back to the 1880s, when Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Filipino immigrants working the sugar cane and pineapple plantations created it — the Lees offer nearly 30 selections from which to choose. There are single traditional Hawaiian plate lunches — Korean kalbi, Japanese katsu, Hawaiian kalua pork, and loco moco (a hamburger patty, fried egg, and gravy) — as well as mixes and combos. The Lees make all the sauces, marinades, and gravies in-house. And because the freshly prepared meat-centric plates (all around eight bucks) are served up in portion sizes that, consistent with the plate lunch's history, seem most fitting following a hard day's labor (or, sans surf, an afternoon of strip-mall shopping), it's a good idea to arrive at Leo's on an empty stomach.

Dare to consider an appetizer beforehand? If so, there is musubi, the blocky, seaweed-wrapped snack of rice and grilled Spam as prevalent in Hawaiian convenience stores as any Snickers bar. If the popular canned and precooked meat product isn't your thing, you can request it be made with barbecue chicken or beef, chicken katsu, or fish instead.

The best plate lunch on the menu is the luau-favorite kalua pork, a piping-hot mass of tender and juicy shredded meat that's been rubbed with sea salt and liquid smoke, wrapped in ti leaves, and slow-roasted for hours. Lusciously smoky and delicately salty, it's rounded out with steamed cabbage and broccoli for meaty bites with a bit of crunch.

For beefier fare, there is a satisfying Hawaiian plate lunch staple of teriyaki beef (Leo's BBQ Beef). Better than the too-dry kalbi short ribs, the thin slices of meat come coated in a sweet and tangy housemade marinade (also delectable on the Island BBQ Chicken) whose flavor seems tailor-made for pairing with the lunch's foundation of carrot-studded macaroni salad and rice, which can be used to soak up what's left of the sauce. And for those willing to go a few extra miles on the treadmill, there is the Lees' version of loco moco, a mammoth mound of two grilled beef patties topped with a duo of fried eggs and covered in a pool of thick brown gravy that a few vegetables (added here, I'm assuming, for comedic value) seem to be struggling to escape from. To turn the moco up a notch, simply replace the beef patties with grilled slices of Spam.

If Lily is working at the counter when you ask what the best chicken plate is, she will point to the lemon pepper chicken — and it's a good idea to take her up on the recommendation. Tender and well seasoned, the boneless breasts are cut into strips and stacked three tiers high atop a bed of veggies for a lively and somewhat tangy dish with extra lemons to squeeze as you please. On the crunchier side is another longtime staple of the Hawaiian plate lunch: chicken katsu. Featuring chicken that's been fried and bathed in a batter of flour, egg, and panko (Japanese bread crumbs), the layered pile of golden, flaky strips can be dunked in a sweet, house made katsu sauce or a thick yellow curry for a bit of heat. If you ask nicely, Lily will let you do a little of both.

Although Leo's isn't a restaurant for the health-conscious, two plate lunches on the seafood side may be as close to "lighter fare" as the Lees are willing to allow — and if you're willing to pay an extra 50 cents, they'll even replace the white rice with brown. There's an excellent dish of plump and (very) garlicky stir-fried shrimp with veggies and a side of gravy you probably won't use. And chunks of delicately breaded and lightly fried fish with carrots, broccoli, and cabbage make for a fill-you-up meal that doesn't feel so, well, filling.

Located in the center of the Arrowhead shopping district, the bright and cheery Leo's matches the friendliness of both the owners and the staff. Here, amid colorful painted walls appointed with photographs of Hawaii and surrounded by island music, the area's locals pop in for plate lunches washed down with soda, tea, or fruity Hawaiian Sun tropical drinks. And Oho says the Hawaiian customers who frequently visit Leo's approve of the food as well.

"They say, 'It tastes like the islands.'"

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld