5 Spots That Are Making Kapolei the Next Foodie Destination on O‘ahu
What to eat now in the island’s Second City.
Editor’s Note: Since our April issue went to print, HI Cravings closed its location in Ka Makana Ali‘i. But the mobile food truck is often at Kapolei Regional Park.
Peruvian food arrives in Kapolei at Limon Rotisserie.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Kapolei conjures images of residential neighborhoods with huge parks, wide streets and a water park overlooking it all.
But food? Up until a couple of years ago, the island’s Second City didn’t offer much more than chain restaurants, fast-food stops and a few small family-run spots that only West Siders really knew about.
That’s all changed.
In 2016, James Beard Award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi opened his first Eating House 1849 on O‘ahu, anchoring the new Kapolei Commons mall. Popular chains including Five Guys and Johnny Rockets have Hawai‘i locations there. And Honolulu favorites Moena Café, Sura Hawai‘i, La Tour Café and Koa Café opened second spots in Kapolei.
“I just like that it’s not hustle and bustle in Kapolei. It’s spacious and you can move around,” Yamaguchi says. “The people are friendly and, to me, it feels good.”
More recently, Limon Rotisserie, an acclaimed Peruvian chain, the crazy-popular-on-the-Mainland Bonchon Korean Fried Chicken joint and an upscale version of Kaka‘ako’s Café Duck Butt picked this city over food-centric Honolulu.
And just like that, Kapolei turned into a foodie destination luring even the most stubborn townie. Here are five reasons to head west.
Honolulu has never been a hotbed for Peruvian food. Sure, we’ve had a couple of introductions—Rico Rico Chicken on King Street near University Avenue and Mimi’s Place at Waterfront Plaza—but, despite great reviews and a small-but-loyal following, neither lasted.
But the San Francisco-based Limon Rotisserie, which opened at Ka Makana Ali‘i last November, might just have staying power.
In big cities on the Mainland, Peruvian food is having a moment, from the critically acclaimed Llama Inn in Brooklyn to mega-popular Mario’s Peruvian & Seafood in Hollywood. Limon Rotisserie, which opened its first restaurant in San Francisco in 2002, has expanded to five locations, with Kapolei its first outside the Bay Area. Brothers Antonio, Eduardo and Martin Castillo started with a cevicheria, a restaurant focused on Peru’s national dish of raw fish cured with limon (lemon in Spanish, but lime in Peru). Soon, though, the brothers added what’s become the restaurant’s signature dish: the el pollo a la brasa, open-flame, slow-cooked rotisserie chicken served with a highly addictive sauce made from aji amarillo, a spicy Peruvian chili pepper, and huacatay, a black mint. You can order a whole 3-pound bird, cut into eight pieces ($28.95), a half chicken ($18.95) or a quarter of a chicken with either dark ($12.95) or white ($13.95) meat. The meat is so juicy it practically slips off the bones.
EL POLLO A LA BRASA
“The rotisserie chicken brings back a lot of childhood memories for me,” says Martin Castillo, owner and executive chef, who hails from a coastal town in Peru.
Limon’s ceviche is still one of its best sellers—which is no surprise in Honolulu, where raw fish is served everywhere, from high-end restaurants to grocery-store deli counters. Limon uses sustainably caught seafood—local fish, shrimp, octopus, squid—marinated in its citrus-based leche de tigre (a combination that typically involves fresh lime juice, garlic, cilantro, red onion, salt and chilies). The seafood can be prepared four ways, including with aji amarillo cream or rocoto pimiento (a spicy pepper), and runs from $11.95 to $17.95. The ceviche trio ($22.95) presents the chef’s favorites: octopus with aji amarillo cream, classic fish in leche de tigre, and shrimp paired with the spicy pimiento sauce.
“We knew [this dish] would do well here,” Castillo says. “The main ingredient is fresh fish, and we knew we could find fresh seafood in Hawai‘i to make our signature ceviche.”
The classic lomo saltado ($19.95) combines the familiar flavors of ginger-soy sauce, wok-fried beef tenderloin and french fries all in one dish—with jasmine rice, too.
Other traditional Peruvian fare on the menu includes a grilled beef tongue topped with house-made chimichurri ($12.95), a Peruvian-style paella with fresh seafood cooked in aromatic saffron rice ($21.95) and boneless short ribs braised in a huacatay-cilantro broth with potatoes, carrots, English peas and jasmine rice ($18.95).
Don’t skip the smaller plates and sides. The empanadas ($8.95 for two) are tasty, hearty starters, filled with your choice of top sirloin, shredded rotisserie chicken, Oaxaca cheese or a combination of mushrooms, spinach and choclo (a large-kernel corn grown in the Andes Mountains). The ensalada rusa ($9.95) is a provocative salad of red beets, baby Yukon potatoes, carrots, choclo and peas served cold and tossed in an aji amarillo aioli with a dusting of fresh parsley. And the chocolate-lucuma bread pudding ($10) features a crème anglaise with lucuma (a Peruvian fruit with a flavor similar to maple syrup or butterscotch), fresh whipped cream and toasted mac nuts.
Chocolate-lucuma bread pudding
Round out the dining experience with a pisco sour, the restaurant’s signature cocktail. The classic one ($12) is a tangy blend of pisco brandy, fresh lime juice, house-made simple syrup, aromatic Angostura bitters and just enough egg whites to make it frothy.
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 501, Kapolei, (808) 670-2646, limonrotisserie.com
SEE ALSO: First Look: Limon Rotisserie in Kapolei
Brothers-in-law Henry Yoon and Jin Hyuk Hong spent a lot of time at Café Duck Butt, a small karaoke bar in Kaka‘ako, enjoying the fried chicken, pajeon (scallion pancakes), dukbokki (spicy rice cakes) and soju.
They saw potential—beyond the provocative name—in this late-night spot that specialized in traditional Korean pūpū and drinks.
In 2010, Yoon, a Harvard graduate and former equity trader, and Hong, who got his MBA from UH, bought Café Duck Butt and turned it into one of the hippest Korean bars on the island, revamping the menu to include more than a dozen different soju cocktails—including one in a hollowed-out watermelon—and Korean tacos.
(About the name, the term “duck butt” in Korean is a colloquial way of describing the shape of someone’s backside—in a good way.)
DB Grill serves a fresh take on Korean staples.
“We wanted to make it more fun, open it up to a different demographic [of customers], modernize it,” Hong says. “We sort of wanted to make it the Korean-American version of Side Street Inn.”
Over the years, and after the success of the improved karaoke bar, the partners entertained the idea of opening another location on O‘ahu. They considered spots in Pearl City and Kapahulu but nothing worked out. Then, an opportunity to join other popular restaurants—Eating House 1849, La Tour Café, Gyu-Kaku—at the new Kapolei Commons popped up. It made sense.
“We wanted to bring a little bit of town to the West Side,” Hong says. “And it was our opportunity to create a restaurant the way we really wanted.”
The restaurant they envisioned is DB Grill—DB stands for Duck Butt—the pair’s take on a modern Asian bistro, which opened in June 2017. This eatery is strikingly different from the intimate Kaka‘ako location, with 22-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass windows that allow sunlight to stream in. The partners were involved with the design of DB Grill, from the light fixtures to the large mural behind the bar, created by local artist Cory Taum. It features an Asian cloud pattern dotted with small black trigrams taken from the South Korean flag and Asian-style hibiscus, or mugunghwa, the Korean national flower. Wait, it gets deeper. The flower has five petals, which represent the five traditional kinds of duty with the goal of peace and happiness. When the flower withers, all of the petals die at the same time, symbolizing the strong bond between them.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of meaning there,” Hong says.
Though DB Grill serves a few popular items from Café Duck Butt, including the fried chicken and kim chee pancakes, you’ll find a fresh take on local and Korean fare. The kim chee fried rice ($13 for a bowl at lunch, $15 for a communal plate at dinner) is bolstered in flavor with bacon and seaweed. The bolognese sauce for the spaghetti ($16, at lunch only) is made with farm-raised White Peking duck. And kim chee tempura takes the loco moco bowl ($15, at lunch only), with house-made burger patties and mushroom gravy, to another level.
One of the standout dishes is the signature kalbi ($22 as a plate for lunch, $32 for a communal plate at dinner), created by head chef Ed Choi Morris, who has worked in the kitchens of Side Street Inn and Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa. He spent three months perfecting the kalbi. He uses a thick-cut short rib, then marinates it for a couple of days in a slightly sweet soy-based sauce until it’s sumptuously tender. It’s served with aromatic jasmine rice fried in duck fat and a house-made stock, with traces of garlic, ginger, scallion and cilantro. It’s listed as a communal plate for dinner, but I predict there will be more fighting than sharing.
Another innovative menu item is the ramen fried chicken sandwich ($14 at lunch and dinner), a playful dish that uses crushed packaged ramen in the chicken’s coating to give it an extra crunch. The chicken fillet is soaked in buttermilk before it’s dredged in the ramen mixture and fried until golden brown. It’s topped with a messy Asian slaw and a honey mustard sauce with a hint of miso on a La Tour brioche bun.
The soju cocktails at DB Grill.
Unlike Café Duck Butt, DB Grill serves local beers and 12 tasty craft cocktails, from the refreshing Soju Mule ($9) with ginger liqueur, ginger beer and fresh mint to the Shiso ‘Ono ($10), with honeydew- and apple-infused soju, shiso, lime and ume.
“There was really no place people could call their go-to spot,” Hong says. “We want to be the hometown restaurant in Kapolei.”
Kapolei Commons, 4450 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 560, Kapolei, (808) 376-0885, dbgrillhi.com
Bonchon Korean Fried Chicken
The chicken is the star here.
The hype started even before Bonchon Korean Fried Chicken opened in Ka Makana Ali‘i last summer.
The South Korean-based chain’s twice-fried chicken wings are nearly legendary, with an extra-crispy skin that crunches audibly when you bite into it.
But it opened with somewhat mixed reviews. While few disputed the tastiness of the chicken, which is sold as boneless strips, drumettes or wings, many complained about the wait time—30 minutes to start, longer if it’s busy—the price and the forgettable nonchicken dishes.
So let’s talk about the wait time. We lucked out, arriving at around 11 a.m. to an empty shop. The worker behind the counter tried to explain to us that the menu was going to change later that day to include combo plates, which would mean they came with a choice of sides. By the time we figured out what we were going to order, a short line had formed behind us. (Maybe we were taking too long.) We ended up waiting for about half an hour for our order of soy-garlic wings, tteokbokki (spicy stir-fried rice cakes, $12.95) and Korean tacos with bulgogi ($11.95).
Now, the price. Chicken plates—wings, strips, drumsticks or a combo of them in either a soy-garlic or spicy sauce—are $10.95 at lunch. Boxes of chicken cost $13.95 for 10 pieces to $34.95 for 30 pieces. If you order sides and starters, a meal here can easily exceed $20 per person.
Then, the other dishes. These paled in comparison to the chicken. The seasoned fries—with parsley, garlic and Parmesan cheese—were just OK, and, though the house fried rice with chicken, tomatoes and cucumbers ($9.95 for lunch) and the Korean tacos were tasty, both were overshadowed by the wings.
So order the chicken. Plan to wait. And be happy there are ATMs nearby.
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 302, Kapolei, (808) 670-2611, bonchonkoreanchicken.com
Mike & Billz Fire Grillz
In my search for zip lines in Kapolei, I stumbled on a small food truck parked near the restrooms at Coral Crater Adventure Park, an 18-acre outdoor playground with ATV courses and, yes, zip lines, that opened last year.
“I eat here every day,” raved the park’s CEO, Jim Owens. “It’s the best.”
Mike & Billz Fire Grillz has a fairly simple menu—steak plates, chicken plates, shrimp plates, with various ways to combine the three and several sauces to match. Plates, with white or brown rice and tossed salad, range from $13 for Korean-garlic shrimp to $7 for a 6-ounce steak. Mini chicken and steak plates go for $6 each.
Mike & Billz is really the husband-and-wife team Mike and Billie Pelen from Mākaha, who have been running this truck for three years. Cooking is in Mike Pelen’s blood. His mom ran a Filipino restaurant in Chinatown and two of his brothers run similar operations—one owns A&G Steak & Things in Wai‘anae and A&G Bar & Grill in Nānākuli and the other ‘Ono Steak & Shrimp in Kapolei. (If the name sounds familiar, the family is well known in the world of local boxing.)
“We took the same concept but added our own sauces,” Mike says.
The steak and chicken have that perfect char that reminds you of summertime barbecues at the beach. And the portions are sizeable, even the mini plate. The sauces are where Mike & Billz shine, with familiar flavors done in a robust way. Not too salty—as can sometimes happen with sauces—and never overpowering the meat.
It takes about 15 minutes to get your food since everything is made to order. So wait on nearby picnic benches and consider a zip line tour at Coral Crater in the meantime. Your time won’t be wasted.
91-1780 Midway Road, Kapolei, at Coral Crater Adventure Park
For years, Jessica Kamana‘o would make her own acai bowls at home, topping the acai blend with fun add-ons including vanilla chips, bee pollen, condensed milk and even pa‘i‘ai. Then, five years ago, she decided to sell these unique bowls out of her garage in Kapolei and, after a few weeks, she had regular customers. A month later, the line twisted down the street with people waiting more than an hour for one of her fruity concoctions. “At that time,” Kamana‘o says, “we literally were waking up to 80 to 100 text messages of orders for the day. We knew the need for the product was there.”
At first, she called the business Jess Da Best. Now it’s HI Cravings, with locations at Union Mall in Downtown and Ka Makana Ali‘i. She added an egg-free cookie dough to the menu—also a huge hit—and a slew of toppings, from hemp seeds to ube ice cream to cookie butter, so you can customize your bowl with unexpected flavors.
And HI Cravings goes beyond offering just acai. You can opt for pitaya, mauka (a blend of veggies and fruits), acai sorbet or mango sorbet. Each bowl ($7 for a small, $9 for medium, $11 for large) comes with slices of strawberries, banana, pineapple, watermelon and grapes and is topped with a vanilla-almond granola and a drizzle of thick, local raw honey. Extra add-ons, including the popular cookie dough, cost between $1 and $1.50 each.
The shop also offers specialty bowls so you don’t have to think. The Native Bowl features kūlolo, fruits and honey on a mound of acai. The Dessert Bowl is topped with strawberries, bananas, white and semisweet chocolate chips and three balls of cookie dough. The Bliss Bowl has bananas, white and semisweet chocolate chips, cookie dough and a swirl of cookie butter.
This place took everything I thought I knew about acai bowls and threw it in a blender with flavors I didn’t think would have worked together. Grapes? Cookie dough? Li hing mui? Bring it.
Ka Makana Ali‘i, 91-5431 Kapolei Parkway, Suite 1007, Kapolei, (808) 561-9386, hicravings.com