Boulder's first L&L Hawaiian Barbecue restaurant opened in September 2023. Credit: L&L Hawaiian Barbecue

Jazmin Brooks, who grew up in Oahu, Hawaii, has fond memories of grabbing lunch from L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, a chain that opened in the 1950s on the island, as she headed to the beach.

“L&L is like the back of my hand,” Brooks said. She remembers afternoons savoring the fast-casual spot’s plate lunch, a Hawaiian comfort food featuring two servings of rice, macaroni salad and a protein of one’s choice. 

“Growing up in Hawaii, we always had a rice cooker filled with rice,” Brooks said. “It’s like a warm blanket you always carried around as a child that gives you that sense of foundation — that grounding of who you are.” 

Brooks left Hawaii after high school to attend Harvard. Years later, in Las Vegas, she met her husband, Matt Coty, while they worked at the MGM Grand Hotel. They moved to Arvada, Colorado, in 2015, when Brooks got a job in fundraising for CU Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences. Throughout her travels, Brooks said she carried her homeland with her.

“There’s always a part of you that misses Hawaii and longs for a sense of the islands,” Brooks said. “Colorado, and the Boulder area in particular, have the least representation I have found in my travels of island culture, of Hawaiian culture.” 

This realization motivated Brooks to bring a piece of her upbringing to Boulder. In September 2023, she and Coty opened their own franchise location of L&L, and Boulder’s first, at 2323 30th Street. Out of L&L’s 224 locations in the United States and Japan, five are in Colorado, with two in Aurora and one each in Colorado Springs and Denver. 

“It was always something in the back of my mind,” Brooks said, “this desire to have a greater sense of community and greater representation of the culture that I was lucky enough to grow up in.” 

The chain’s origins date to 1976, when Eddie Flores Jr. and Johnson Kam bought L&L Drive Inn, a small casual eatery in Oahu, Hawaii. They opened franchises across the islands and expanded into California in the 1990s. 

Jazmin Brooks and Matt Coty, Credit: L&L Hawaiian Barbecue

Coty, who is from California, also grew up eating at L&L, which has 99 locations in the state. In his 20s, Coty attended the California Culinary Academy, graduating to manage restaurants and breweries. When their daughter was born in 2000, Coty stepped away from the demanding culinary industry to spend more time at home and transition to a career in real estate. 

“He’s always missed it,” Brooks said of Coty’s connection to the hospitality industry. So during the pandemic, they made the decision to open an L&L location. 

The couple applied to become franchise owners in July 2021, and after their approval, spent eight months looking for a location and another nine months navigating the permitting process. 

L&L franchises mostly look the same, with a yellow-and-red color scheme and a small interior. Some are drive-through only, Brooks said. 

“A lot of the cuisine in Hawaii is meant to be grab-and-go,” Brooks said. “Our culture is to take it with you and go to the beach.”

While adhering to L&L’s “staples that must be present,” Brooks said the Boulder location offers unique menu items. Coty created the restaurant’s 303 sauce, a green chili concoction designed to pair with the menu’s pork dishes. Another employee is developing lumpia, Filipino spring rolls, for L&L’s Boulder menu.

L&L’s staples include plate lunches with protein options like barbecue chicken, short rib, chicken katsu, Kalua pork, hamburger steak and shrimp. Typically priced between $12 and $16, L&L’s plate lunches offer cuisines beyond Hawaiian. The plate lunch tradition dates back to the 1800s when laborers on Hawaiian sugar plantations and pineapple fields would bring rice and leftovers for lunch, trading portions of their meals with workers from around the world. 

“The L&L Hawaiian barbecue experience is absolutely influenced by all of the different ethnicities and representations that have come through the islands,” Brooks said. 

L&L uses sushi rice, which is stickier and sweeter than regular rice, and of Japanese origin. They also use chicken katsu, Japanese-style breaded cutlets, and spam, which was introduced in Hawaii during WWII to feed military members and remained popular on the islands after the war. 

Lau Lau, however, is a traditional Hawaiian dish, consisting of chunks of pork and fish wrapped in tea leaves or banana leaves and steamed. It’s only served on Fridays at Boulder’s L&L and is the most expensive item on the menu, at $20. 

“Boulder has an audience for cuisine like this that is affordable, that is approachable, that is good, that is regional and cultural,” Brooks said. “It’s been really satisfying for me, as somebody born and raised in Hawaii, to see people come out of the woodwork and actually recognize that there is a robust Hawaiian community here in the Boulder County area.” 

The restaurant has even helped Brooks connect with her community.

Since opening, Brooks has discovered three halaus, or Hawaiian hula schools, in Boulder: the Hula School of the Western Mountains, Colorado Hula and Keaka O Kalani, who performed at L&L Boulder’s opening ceremony. Brooks said she has become fast friends with some of the halau’s teachers and students. 

“We hope that the Boulder location is successful, sustainable and continues to be welcomed by this community, and continues to be seen as a meeting place where we, as people from Hawaii, can see each other and find each other,” she said.

Jessica Mordacq is a contributor to Boulder Reporting Lab focused on local food and drink coverage. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, she graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and has previously written for various trade and lifestyle magazines. Email: jessica@boulderreportinglab.org.

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2 Comments

  1. So happy to have L&L here, and I’ve already eaten there several times, but to call it “Boulder’s first Hawaiian restaurant” is flat out wrong! 8 Island Restaurant operated on 28th and Valmont for several years and was beloved by some, but obviously not enough people to keep it going. It was in the location currently occupied by Curry N Kabob.

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