First Look: Koa Café in Mō‘ili‘ili

This modern breakfast spot, run by the same family as Koa Pancake House, serves a spicy Benedict and other unexpected breakfast fare.


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The menu at Koa Café, which opened on Sept. 1, features interesting twists on breakfast fare, including the Guava Lava, a mochi waffle topped with guava purée.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox

 

Koa Café is nothing like its sister restaurant, Koa Pancake House, but that’s a good thing.

 

This modern café in Mō‘ili‘ili, which opened on Sept. 1, has a modern breakfast menu, with items including butter mochi pancakes, pesto Benedict with sautéed vegetables and  a banh mi stuffed with vinha d’alhos, gouda and a jalapeño aioli.

 

You won’t find basic eggs and hash browns here.

 

“We’re calling it a modern twist on breakfast,” says owner Juno Chung. “Instead of buttermilk pancakes, we’re doing butter mochi pancakes. We’re using more Asian flavors. And we’re taking the best-sellers from Koa Pancake House and doing something different.”

 

Juno Chung is the son of the original owners of Koa Pancake House. At 30, he runs the business, including this new café concept.

 

The menu features dishes I’ve never seen before: The Angry Benedict, with chunks of kalbi and kim chee topped with a not-too-spicy Sriracha hollandaise ($12); a dish featuring corned beef hash, egg and cheese stuffed into a whole-grain croissant ($9); the KFC (Korean fried chicken) waffle with gochujang fried chicken on a Belgian waffle ($10); and brownie pancakes topped with a haupia cream sauce ($7).

 

The Angry Benedict has kalbi, kim chee and a Sriracha aioli with a poached egg on top of a toasted English muffin. Chung’s parents, both Korean, loved this dish. “If Koreans are saying it’s good,” says consultant Kyle Shimoda, “then we’re going to put this on the menu.”

 

The Koa Cristo uses vinha d’alhos—instead of ham—and comes with sidewinder fries.

 

One standout is the Koa Cristo ($10), a clever take on the classic Monte Cristo, but, instead of ham, this features Koa Pancake House’s popular vinha d’alhos with gouda cheese and a jalapeño aioli. It comes with a side of a house maple dip that you really don't need.

 

The Vinha Banh Mi ($9) is another ingenious twist on a traditional Vietnamese sandwich. The toasted bun is packed with vinha d’alhos, pickled carrots and daikon, sliced apples and a cilantro-garlic aioli. You can opt to get this on a whole-grain croissant, which I’d recommend.

 

Vinha BANH Mi is packed with vinha d’alhos, pickled carrots and daikon, sliced apples and a cilantro-garlic aioli.

 

The story of Koa Café is a long one.

 

It started with a couple, Il Man and Sam Soon Chung, who owned a driving school on O‘ahu. In 1988, a restaurant called the Koa House on Kahuhipa Street in Kāneʻohe was for sale. The building had been a restaurant since the early ’80s—it was the first location of Eggs ’N Things—and changed owners several times. Koa House was created by a guy who imported wood and had outfitted the restaurant with high-value koa wood. Hence the name.

 

The couple changed the name to Koa Pancake House, serving breakfast classics, and it quickly turned into a neighborhood favorite.

 

In 2001, they decided to expand the brand, opening a second location in Wahiawā. This restaurant was fast-casual, offering counter service—not table service—and it proved to be a success. Every year after that, they opened new locations, totaling, at one point, eight restaurants. (The couple has since handed over two locations to relatives to run.)

 

All three of their kids helped out in the restaurant growing up. But only one—their only son, Juno—considered working in the family business.

 

“My parents had my whole life planned out,” says Chung, 30, laughing. “I was supposed to marry a Korean girl, have five sons. There was a lot of pressure on me.”

 

Though he was more interested in retail than restaurants, he majored in business management at Chaminade University and started working for the family company right after graduation.

 

In 2012, though, he realized he and his parents had different approaches to the business, and he left for New York City to start up a clothing business. He was there for a year when his parents got sick and he returned to Hawai‘i, promising to take over the business if they let him make some changes.

 

He created management positions in the restaurants, introduced new technology, outsourced payroll and streamlined operations. The result was a boost in sales and a more efficiently run company.

 

“My biggest thing was switching from working in the business to working on the business,” he says. “I had to look at the bigger picture and make better decisions.”

 

Then, he wanted to change the menu.

 

He knew Koa Pancake House had a following for its simple menu of eggs, pancakes and French toast. So, at first, he wanted to introduce specials and maybe a secret menu to offer more innovative breakfast fare.

 

He turned to friend and consultant Kyle Shimoda, and the pair went to various breakfast spots on O‘ahu and tried different recipes for about a year before deciding on an entirely new concept.

 

He leased a 3,100-square-foot space on South King Street—formerly occupied by Rent-A-Center—and opened Koa Café Sept. 1. (His second location is slated to open in November in the new Ka Makana Ali‘i in Kapolei.)

 

There are sweet options at Koa Café, too, including the Guava Lava Mochi Waffle ($9). These waffles have a sticky, mochilike texture, topped with a guava purée that’s just sweet enough. The Butter Mochi Pancakes ($8) are a surprise, too; these thin pancakes have that buttery mochi flavor and come topped with candied nuts and fresh fruits.

 

The Butter Mochi Pancakes combine the flavors of butter mochi with pancakes. It comes topped with fresh fruits, candied nuts and whipped cream.

 

Koa Café also has a nice selection of coffees, including cold-brewed coffee and shots of espresso.

 

“I feel this reaches a different demographic,” Chung says. “I want to give people a unique food experience.”

 

Koa Café, 2700 S. King St., 941-7778, @koacafehawaii

 

Join us for a starlight soirée celebrating the culinary stars of this year’s Hale ‘Aina Awards! Dine on dishes from 13 top restaurants while sipping on cocktails and enjoying amazing entertainment, all under the stars at the luxurious Royal Hawaiian Hotel. For more information, click here.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX

 

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