Image: Rainbow Drive-In
Eugene Tanner  /  AP file
Rainbow Drive-In in Kapahulu, Hawaii, is known for its delicious local food served up in a box. President Barack Obama, who was raised on Oahu, has been known to visit the drive-in to pick up a meal with his family while vacationing on Oahu.
updated 3/19/2009 10:01:08 AM ET 2009-03-19T14:01:08

President Barack Obama doesn't need a restaurant guide when he visits Hawaii.

When the island icon comes home to visit family and vacation, he knows exactly where and what to eat. His favorites range from Hawaii's top fine-dining establishments to walk-up windows where $10 could buy a carb-rich feast.

Michelle Obama once said, "You can't really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii."

And there's no way to truly experience Hawaii without tasting the local "grinds."

During his past two visits to Honolulu, where he was born and raised, Obama provided a glimpse of what pleases his presidential palate. While he has undoubtedly become a fan of Chicago fare, he didn't experience deep-dish pizzas or Italian beef sandwiches growing up.

The closest young Obama got to snow was slurping a Hawaiian shave ice.

"I'm going to get a plate lunch," Obama proclaimed, moments after arriving in Honolulu on his August vacation.

The name "plate lunch" doesn't quite do it justice. It should be called: heaping pile of rice and meat crammed into a plastic foam container that could feed a small family, costs about $6, will require a couple of Rolaids and induce a two-hour nap.

And if there's nothing on the plate that's deep fried, soaked in mayonnaise, smothered in gravy or doubles your bad cholesterol level, it's not a true plate lunch.

That could account for why the health-conscious president we see now was pleasantly plump during his childhood when he was known as "Barry."

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Plate lunches have been a part of Hawaii for decades. They are believed to have originated in the 19th century plantation era, when sugarcane workers brought rice, pickled vegetables and other leftovers from dinner and took a lunch break together in the shade. Decades later, "lunch wagons" started delivering plate lunches to laborers, much like they do today.

Plate lunches reflect the state's multicultural population, with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian and American influences.

There are literally hundreds of combinations of plate lunches to choose from, and some places now offer gourmet selections and more healthy choices with brown rice and tossed salads, instead of the traditional white rice and macaroni salad.

Plate lunches are widely available from white lunch wagons parked around downtown and at many restaurants. The best spots don't show up in tour books, but the locals prefer it that way, because the lines are already too long.

Besides plate lunches, island cuisine often focuses on fresh fish and vegetables grown locally with seasonings borrowed from across the Pacific Rim.

At one point during his last visit, Obama offered journalists a shave ice. Hawaii's shave ice is a monster version of the snow cone, featuring fine-shaved powder with no icy chunks and a long list of tropical flavors.

"Guys, here's your chance," Obama said. "No? I'm telling you, this is really good."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Presidential journey

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  1. Michelle Obama and her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, walk offstage as President-elect Barack Obama addresses supporters during his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago. Obama was a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s. He returned to the Windy City after earning his law degree, taught at the University of Chicago and eventually entered politics. Now, the Obamas live in the Kenwood area of Chicago, an affluent, educated neighborhood on the South Side. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Obama and his daughters walk the beach during their vacation in Kailua, Hawaii, on Aug. 12, 2008. Obama was born in Honolulu and lived with his mother and grandparents in a two-bedroom apartment. He moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1967 after his mother married an Indonesian man. Obama returned to Hawaii when he was 10 and lived with his grandparents until he was 18. (Marco Garcia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. During his August vacation, Obama threw a lei at the point where he scattered his mother's ashes in Honolulu. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Obama (red shirt) is seen with family and friends at the Pali Lookout in Honolulu. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The steep trail to the Makapuu lighthouse is one of Barack Obama's favorite hikes in his hometown of Honolulu. Here, a hiker and her dog make their way along the picturesque trail. (Lucy Pemoni / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In 1971, when he was 10 years old, Barry Obama enrolled at the private Punahou School in Honolulu and entered an unfamiliar world of privilege. Despite feeling out of place, he eventually prospered at the school. Today, tuition tops $16,000 per year at the exclusive institution. (Lucy Pemoni / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Indonesian school girls run on the playground at the SDN Menteng 1 school in Jakarta, Indonesia. President-elect Barack Obama attended the school when he was a child. (Ed Wray / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Local boys in Kogelo village, Kenya, admire a painting featuring President-elect Barack Obama, center, alongside, from left, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, current U.S. President George W. Bush and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, during a gathering of people on Nov. 4, 2008. Obama's late father was from Kogelo, a village in western Kenya, and his half-brother, step-grandmother and other relatives still live there. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. This is a view of Langdell Hall at the school's campus in Cambridge, Mass. While there, Obama served as president for the Harvard Law Review. (Harvard Law School / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barber Tony Coye talks about President-elect Barack Obama as he cuts Kenneth Clay's hair at the Hyde Park Hair Salon in Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. This is a curbside view of the Chicago home of President-elect Barack Obama. Places that U.S. presidents have called home often become major tourist attractions, from estates at Mount Vernon and Monticello, to Hodgenville, Ky., where Abe Lincoln's log cabin once stood. (Jerry Lai / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Occidental College students celebrate in Samuelson Campus Pavilion on the Eagle Rock campus in Los Angeles, Calif., as alumnus Barack Obama is officially announced the 44th president of the United States on Nov. 4, 2008. (Marc Campos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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