The Dying Art of the Flaming Pu-Pu Platter

A few weeks ago, I got a message from a friend who was visiting Los Angeles. Where, she wondered, could she take her 15-year-old nephew so he could experience the joy of a flaming Pu-Pu Platter? My immediate thought was, well, where can’t you take him. I was sure I could find a half-dozen places. Just turn to the Appetizers section of the menu at your favorite old Polynesian restaurant—probably even titled “Pupus”—and there it is, a sampler set, served on a monkeypod lazy susan topped with a mini hibachi erupting with fire. It’s always there. Right?

I checked the menus for the places nearest her. Damon’s in Glendale: nope. The Trader Vic’s Lounge in Beverly Hills has a Cosmo Tidbits sampler plate for two, but it just comes on a boring white plate, no fire. The Warehouse in Marina del Rey: nope. The Galley in Santa Monica: nope. In desperation, I started to increase the radius. Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach: nope. Trader Sam’s at Disneyland has a Pu-Pu Platter served in a red and black bento box, which is a small step up from the Cosmo Tidbits, but it’s no lazy susan, and still no fire.

Cold panic set in. Are Pu-Pu Platters dying?

As a lover of midcentury things and places, I’m accustomed to saying goodbye to old favorites. But it had never occurred to me that the venerable Pu-Pu Platter would go away. Flaming bowl drinks for sharing can suddenly be found everywhere, so where have all the Pu-Pu Platters gone? Heck, the fire even has a job to do on a Pu-Pu Platter!

We have to save the Pu-Pu Platter.

Bartender friends: I know you love your fire. If your place has a food license, please, please see about adding a flaming Pu-Pu Platter to your menu. Source some monkeypod lazy susans and do it up right.

Anatomy of an Ideal Pu-Pu Platter

Tiered carved serving display from the Philippines
Tiered carved serving display from the Philippines
Typical Pu-Pu Platter base
Typical Pu-Pu Platter base

The Base

You can find elaborate, tiered, carved vintage serving trays from the Philippines pretty easily on eBay or Etsy. They’re glorious, but a little impractical (unsafe, even?) to top with a flaming grill. If you must go the fire-free route, the drama of the tiered platter makes up for it.

If you’re going for fire, and especially if you’re looking for something to use in service in a restaurant, you’re probably going to use a basic five-compartment wooden lazy susan, which has a sixth, circular spot in the middle for the grill. A quick spin around the Internet and I saw these at restaurant supply sites, Amazon and eBay. They’re not hard to find.

Mini hibachi grill for a Pu-Pu Platter
Mini hibachi grill for a Pu-Pu Platter

The Grill

I quickly found a couple different kinds of hibachi grills just for Pu-Pu Platters online, again available all over the place. This dragon one is pretty snazzy! You’ll more commonly see a simple, elegant cast iron version.

Sterno, fuel for flaming Pu-Pu Platters
Sterno, fuel for flaming Pu-Pu Platters

The Fuel

Old news articles talking about Pu-Pu Platters mention the use of charcoal briquettes, but you’re going to want to use Sterno or something similar. Sterno is a flammable gel, you scoop a small amount into the grill and light it. Voila! Sterno looks cute and friendly, but don’t lose sight of the fact it’s basically solid chunks of gasoline, and handle it appropriately.

Pupus on a menu from Polynesian Village in Boston, from the collection of Mimi Payne
Pupus on a menu from Polynesian Village in Boston, from the collection of Mimi Payne

The Pu-Pus

Crab Rangoon, short ribs, egg rolls, pot stickers, beef skewers, fried shrimp, Rumaki… all of the traditional Polynesian restaurant appetizers are perfect for Pu-Pu Platters. Read Beachbum Berry’s Taboo Table for some great old pu-pu recipes. If you want to modernize the food, a Pu-Pu Platter is a great way to blend the old with the new.

The fire can be used to heat individual appetizers or make them slightly more well-done, but everything needs to be pre-cooked—the little hibachi grill can only do so much.

Early appearances of the flaming Pu-Pu Platter on menus. Left, Pub-Tiki in Philadelphia, circa 1960s. Right, Mark Thomas Outrigger in Monterey, 1962.
Early appearances of the flaming Pu-Pu Platter on menus. Left, Pub-Tiki in Philadelphia, circa 1960s. Right, Mark Thomas Outrigger in Monterey, 1962.

That Name

Pū-pū is a Hawaiian word for appetizer. Pu-pu, well, it’s a disarming word.

Consider this: back in the dawn of Polynesian fine dining, your more typical fine dining options would have been stuffy French restaurants, with menus full of unrecognizable and unpronounceable words, and a suit-jacketed waiter looking down his nose at you, expecting you to know what you’re doing, and you don’t, and you wonder how much this whole miserable affair is going to cost you.

Then, you try this new Polynesian place. The waiter isn’t wearing a suit, he’s wearing an aloha shirt. He’s smiling at you. You look at the menu and see “Pu-Pu Platter.” And you giggle, and you look at the waiter, and you know that he knows that you don’t know what the hell a pu-pu is. And it’s okay. You’re not supposed to. The pressure, for once in your buttoned-down life, is off. Now, you feel invited. You feel welcome. You feel alien, but you also feel comfortable.

It’s an uncanny thing, this simultaneous push-pull of the strange-yet-welcoming environment of Tiki. The drinks get a lot of credit for the explosion in popularity of Polynesian restaurants in midcentury America, but that wasn’t it. The drinks, we love them, they’re incredible, but it wasn’t just pouring booze into people that made them love these places. It was the transporting beauty of the rooms, the introduction of some then-revolutionary ideas about combining flavors from around the world, the surprisingly approachable way it was all put together. The drinks were a critical component, but just part of a whole. Combined with the many other ways the South Pacific was entering the general public consciousness, people wanted more and more of the entire Polynesian restaurant experience.

Flaming Pu-Pu Platter at Longitude in Oakland
Flaming Pu-Pu Platter at Longitude in Oakland

Where to find them today

I don’t know who first put “Pu-Pu Platter” on their menu, and when. If I had to venture a guess, let’s say it happened some time in the ’50s. But what I’m more keen to get a handle on is where you can find them today. I know you can get a great one at Longitude in Oakland, because I had one there last Sunday!

Now in the listings on Critiki: FIRE!

I’ve added a new feature to Critiki: FIRE. Look for this at-a-glance list of how a location uses fire, whether it’s for a flaming Pu-Pu Platter, Volcano Bowls, Coffee Grogs, or even on stage with dancers. I’m also going to start noting in the text description if a place is known to serve a Pu-Pu Platter, fiery or no. I’ve updated the listing for Longitude, but I haven’t yet updated any other locations; I have some research ahead of me.

You can help: tell me which places in Critiki you know serve a Pu-Pu Platter. Bonus points if it’s on fire! You can comment here, on Facebook, or on Twitter. (Go ahead and share your local Chinese restaurant with a great flaming Pu-Pu Platter, too. I won’t be adding those places to Critiki, because I want to keep Critiki focused on Poly Pop-type places, but the other readers near you may want to know!)

Don’t miss the follow-up to this article: These Tiki Bars Are Keeping Flaming Pu Pus Alive, a list of where you can still find them!

OH HEY, while I have your attention: don’t forget to update your ratings in Critiki, it’s almost time to announce Critiki’s Best Tiki Bars in the World for 2016!

17 thoughts on “The Dying Art of the Flaming Pu-Pu Platter

    1. As a loyal, extremely biased customer of Lun Wah since the 70’s….
      Your decor, ambience, staff, cocktail selection, PuPu Platter and overall vibe has always been nothing less than authentic.
      Polynesian perfection is an understatement.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Aloha Humu! Please be assured that here in the wilds of NJ, the flames of the pupu are alive and well at Lee’s Hawaiian Islander and Chan’s Dragon in, along with several “non-tiki but very old-school” Chinese-American restaurants. Sadly, the same cannot be said for flaming dishes or drinks (Fire Marshall rules). xo

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yay! I favor the pupu at Lee’s over Chan’s , Jade Island, and Luhn Wah (disclaimer: Lee’s is 1.5 miles away, and I’m too lazy to drive further), but all are great pupu examples! Have a great visit. xoxo

        PS I love your very engaging pieces on pupu. Keep on fighting the good fight.

        Liked by 1 person

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