First look: ‘Ai Love Nalo
This Waimānalo café serves healthy and hearty vegan food.
Left to right: The Avocado Sandwich, Kalo Falafel, Roasted baba Ghanoush and Wow Laulau.
Photos: Kawehi Haug
Had the food at ‘Ai Love Nalo not tasted as good, we might have felt duped. At first glance, the menu of sandwiches, plate lunches and salads looks like a solid menu of good, hearty food, albeit with a bit of a healthy bent. Laulau, a Portobello barbecue sandwich, a “Coco-Bacon” salad. Yes, please. We love all of that.
The Avocado Sandwich.
But, then, a closer look at the three-paneled chalkboard menu cluttered with delicious-sounding dishes reveals the truth: This place might be ... vegan?! Every meat eater (and indeed, meat lover) knows exactly what happened next. The fight-or-flight instinct of the carnivore takes over. Do I bail before the super-nice people at the counter get wise to my (perhaps silly) resistance to meatless meals? Or do I fight my inner spoiled brat and force myself to just give this stuff a try? What could it hurt? It’s just veggies, after all.
We’re here to tell you: Give in. Seriously, meat people, just give in. Because ‘Ai Love Nalo, a new little cafe in Waimānalo that occupies the space that was once Sweet Home Waimānalo, makes really, really good food. Not just good food for vegan food. Good food by any standards. Would we have been OK with it if there had been, say, a chicken breast in our roasted veggie sandwich? Yeah. We’re not claiming to be converts. But the roasted veggie Oh Wow Lau Lau, packed with locally grown ‘ulu, sweet potato, onions and carrots slow cooked in coconut milk and steamed in Lū‘au leaf is satisfying and delicious. It doesn’t exactly taste like laulau—laulau is laulau because of the pork—but it tastes really good. A pinch or two of salt to balance the natural sweetness of all the veggies would have made it even better, but that’s a minor gripe.
We also liked the fire-roasted baba ghanoush, which was a pretty straightforward version of the eggplant dip, and the Kalo Falafel, falafel made with taro instead of the traditional chickpea base, which makes for an ideal fritter: a crisp exterior with a tender center. The veggie avocado sandwich was also a favorite. A whole-wheat bun is piled extra high with every manner of roasted vegetable, plus thick slices of avocado, house-made mayo and served with a side of mushroom gravy that brings all the earthy, smoky, roast-y flavors together in such a way that we almost forgot that our avo sando didn’t have bacon on it. Almost. Where our new-found (and frankly, surprising) appreciation for food that is strictly and purely plant-based came to a halt, mid-bite, was with the tofu poke. We just couldn’t get past the soft, mushy texture of the tofu, coupled with the limu-heavy marinade that tasted more like the ocean than we expected. Ocean is the perfect flavor when you’re talking cool, firm chunks of ‘ahi and salty shoyu. But we just couldn’t do it with the soft tofu. We’re willing to concede we might not be the right eaters for that particular dish.
We like ‘Ai Love Nalo. The food is good. The vibe is cool—friendly staff and a bright little space built out with reclaimed wood accents that nod to the small beach town’s country roots. But what we really like about the place is that we believe them when they say that the ‘Ai Love Nalo ‘ohana is dedicated to using the most ‘ono and pono food. ‘Ono and pono? Sounds like a perfect meal to us.
‘Ai Love Nalo, 41-1025 Kalaniana‘ole Highway, plates $10–$11, sandwiches and salads $9–$10, 7 a.m.—5 p.m. Wednesday—Monday (closed Tuesdays), ailovenalo.com