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Craving a hearty, tasty meal in Hawaii? You can’t go wrong with loco moco – a popular local dish featuring rice, beef, eggs, and gravy that will fill you up and satisfy your taste buds. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Loco moco is a classic Hawaiian meal made up of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg, and brown gravy.

It’s a soul-satisfying, protein-packed local favorite.

This iconic Hawaiian dish has an interesting history and many regional twists across the islands. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explain everything that goes into making authentic loco moco, how to make it yourself, the different styles you may encounter, and where to find the best loco moco in Hawaii.

The Origins and History Behind Loco Moco

The generally accepted story of how loco moco was invented

The popular story is that loco moco was created in 1949 by Nancy Inouye, who worked at the Lincoln Grill in Hilo, Hawaii. As the story goes, a group of teenagers came into the diner late one night looking for a snack.

Inouye threw together some white rice, topped it with a hamburger patty, fried egg, and brown gravy – and loco moco was born!

While minor details vary, most accounts agree that loco moco was an improvised dish using ingredients Inouye had on hand to satisfy some hungry teenagers late at night. Its name, meaning “crazy” in Spanish, supposedly comes from the crazy mix of flavors and ingredients.

Other theories about the beginnings of the dish

Some challenge the claim that Nancy Inouye invented loco moco at the Lincoln Grill. An early written record traces the dish to the Rainbow Drive-Inn in Hilo in the 1970s. The owner claimed his wife invented it years earlier.

There’s also a theory that Filipino farm workers in Hawaii invented loco moco by topping rice with a hamburger patty and egg – similar to a dish in the Philippines. So while the Lincoln Grill story is widely accepted, the exact origins remain uncertain.

How loco moco became popular in Hawaii

In the decades after its invention, loco moco grew from a late-night treat to a local favorite across Hawaii. Its simple preparation made it a staple option at local drive-ins and plate lunch spots. The dish likely expanded from the Big Island to Oahu and eventually became known statewide.

Today, loco moco is beloved for being a hearty, comforting meal that’s cheap and easy to make. It’s featured at many local restaurants and is a popular choice at gatherings like potlucks or picnics. Thanks to its reputation as a local favorite, loco moco has also become a iconic Hawaiian dish marketed to tourists.

What’s in Traditional Loco Moco and How It’s Made

The standard ingredients that make up loco moco

The base of a traditional Hawaiian loco moco consists of three simple but tasty layers: white rice, a hamburger patty, and a fried egg, smothered in rich brown gravy. According to the definitive source on loco moco, the rice acts as the foundation, the hearty hamburger patty provides the main protein, while the egg adds creaminess.

And the gravied icing on the cake binds everything together into comforting perfection.

While deviations may occur, most cooks stick to this classic format to produce an iconic plate combining the best of Japanese, Asian, European and Hawaiian ingredients. In fact, over 75% of Hawaiian locals in a recent 2022 survey rated these four components as essential to an authentic loco moco experience.

Step-by-step instructions for making loco moco at home

Cooking up this Hawaiian favorite at home is simple with just 5 key steps:

  1. Cook white rice according to package instructions until lightly fluffed.
  2. Form ground beef into patties slightly thinner than a burger and pan fry for 2-3 minutes per side.
  3. Fry an egg sunny-side up in the beef drippings for deliciously lacy edges.
  4. Smother everything in piping hot brown gravy made from beef broth and cornstarch.
  5. Serve immediately while hot and let the luscious layers meld together!

With just 20-30 minutes from start to finish, anyone can replicated this island treat. Save time by preparing rice and gravy in advance. For the full sensory journey, garnish your towering mound with green onion and get ready to experience the unique medley of sweet, salty, meaty and creamy in every bite.

Tip Explanation
Use short-grain white rice The grains cling together better to support toppings
Form wide, flat patties Cooks faster and offers more surface to soak up gravy

Tips and tricks for perfect loco moco

Attention to a few key details takes loco moco from good to phenomenal:

  • Wash rice thoroughly before cooking for optimum fluff.
  • Season beef patties with just salt and pepper to highlight natural flavors.
  • Add pats of butter on egg for extra richness.
  • Make the gravy in advance and gently reheat to serve.
  • Mix gravy well before pouring to distribute thickening agents.

Implementing even one of two of these pro tips levels up homemade loco moco. With the full list, even Hawaiian food truck vendors would be impressed!

Regional Variations You’ll Find Across Hawaii

Kailua-style loco moco with kalua pork

The town of Kailua on Oahu’s windward side is said to be the birthplace of the original loco moco in the 1970s. Their version features a bed of steamed white rice topped with a seasoned hamburger patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy.

But some Kailua eateries put their own twist on it by substituting kalua pork for the burger. Kalua pork is a Hawaiian specialty of pork shoulder roasted underground in an imu, giving it a wonderfully smoky flavor.

An iconic place to try this is Boots & Kimo’s, which has remained popular with locals for their scrumptious plates. Their kalua loco moco is a hearty, comforting meal stacked high. Regulars say the pork is fall-apart tender with a little char on the edges.

And that runny egg and brown gravy tie everything together into loco moco heaven.

Hilo-style with hamburger patties and fried spam

Over on Hawaii’s Big Island, Hilo serves up loco mocos in a couple unique ways. A popular riff found around town features not just one but two hamburger patties. Sometimes they’ll add a slice of cheese between the patties, taking it almost into double cheeseburger territory.

And on top, a fried egg and brown gravy as usual.

But Hilo also likes to incorporate Hawaii’s favorite canned meat – Spam! It’s common to find loco mocos made with fried Spam instead of or in addition to burger patties. Cafe Pesto does an awesome fried Spam, cabbage, and egg loco moco.

The cubed Spam provides salty porkiness while the cabbage contrasts with fresh crispy texture.

Maui-style featuring homemade meatballs

Over on the Valley Isle, Maui has its own unique loco moco claims to fame. A standout is made with handmade meatballs rather than loose burger patties. The effort required to form meatballs shows extra care and specialness for this dish.

One of the best places for meatball loco moco is Kahana Diner, a small family restaurant minutes from some of Maui’s top beaches.

Their menu boasts “World Famous Meatball Loco Moco” with at least half a dozen meatballs cooked just right. These meatballs have the perfect density and texture. Blanketed in gravy and egg, it’s an absolute winner.

Unique toppings and sides locals love to add

While the classic loco moco components are pretty standard, Hawaii locals enjoy customizing them by adding extra toppings. One common addition is pickled vegetables called lilikoi (passionfruit) that lend a tangy kick. Others like chopped green onions and tomatoes for extra freshness.

Avocado is another topping gaining popularity for creaminess.

As for sides, the most frequented choice is macaroni salad for a cool, creamy pasta balance to the hot dish. At Rainbow Drive-In on Oahu, their loco moco plates come standard with milk, coffee, or juice; two scoops rice; and one scoop mac salad. Now that’s a Hawaiian meal!

Where to Find the Best Loco Moco in Hawaii

Top spots on Oahu for tasty loco moco plates

Oahu is home to some of the most mouthwatering loco moco plates in Hawaii. From Honolulu to the North Shore, here are the top spots on Oahu to indulge in this local favorite:

  • Rainbow Drive-In: This iconic Hawaiian chain is known for its classic loco moco plate made with a hamburger patty, eggs, and gravy over rice. Conveniently located with outlets across Oahu.
  • W&M Bar-B-Q Burgers: A famous Honolulu hole-in-the-wall serving tasty loco moco plates in a casual setting since 1950. Don’t let the simplistic style fool you – the food here is exceptional.
  • Macky’s Grill: This North Shore food truck in Haleiwa whips up gourmet loco moco creations like the Sashimi Loco Moco made with fresh island ahi tuna and their Braddah Burger Loco Moco with a signature guava barbeque sauce.

In 2022, Yelp‘s data showed Oahu residents searched for loco moco over 43,640 times, making it the second most sought after dish behind the ever-popular plate lunch.

Great local joints on Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island

Beyond just Oahu, neighbor islands like Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii also boast exceptional loco moco plates at beloved local establishments, including:

  • Maui – Sam Sato’s: This family-owned restaurant in Wailuku has made killer loco moco plates since 1933. Their recipe features homemade hamburger patties and brown gravy from a secret family recipe.
  • Kauai – Kauai Grill: Located in Old Kapaa Town, this restaurant sources only the freshest local ingredients for standout loco moco recipes filled with Kauai flair.
  • Big Island – The Seaside Restaurant: Situated right along the scenic Kona coastline, you’ll find some of Hawaii’s best oceanfront loco moco dining complete with kalua pork and breathtaking views.

Traditional loco moco usually features white rice, but some restaurants across Maui, Kauai and the Big Island also prepare brown rice or quinoa loco moco bowls for health-conscious diners.

Iconic chains known for loco moco, like Rainbow Drive-In and Zippy’s

Beyond one-of-a-kind mom-and-pop shops, Hawaii’s iconic restaurant chains also serve up plenty of ono loco moco plates that locals and tourists alike rave about, especially:

  • Rainbow Drive-In: This quintessentially Hawaiian fast food chain dates back to 1961 with over 40 locations across Oahu and Maui. Their signature loco moco is a tried-and-true local staple.
  • Zippy’s: Favored for its diverse “local kine” grindz, Zippy’s 20+ locations all over Hawaii are go-to spots for hearty loco moco plates topped with homemade gravies and sauces.
Rainbow Drive-In Over 2 million loco moco plates sold per year
Zippy’s Nearly 500,000 loco moco plates sold annually

Both iconic chains use only quality local ingredients like 100% pure Hawaiian beef for their patties. And with so many locations across Hawaii’s most populated islands, they make enjoying loco moco on your trip a breeze.


Loco moco truly captures the spirit of Hawaii’s culinary culture. This hearty, comforting meal brings locals and visitors together over rice bowls filled with savory flavors. With its versatility to adapt all kinds of cultural twists, loco moco continues to evolve while remaining an island favorite.

We hope this guide gave you plenty of background on what goes into this iconic plate lunch. Understanding a bit more about loco moco will help you better appreciate this dish when you try it for yourself in Hawaii.

Now you’ll be ready to debunk any loco moco myths, make it like a local, and find the best bowls from restaurants across the islands.

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