Hawai‘i’s Best Breakfast: Café Kaila’s Perfect Pancakes Attract Lines Out the Door
Owner Chrissie Kaila Castillo is always in pursuit of pancake perfection.
2015 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Best Breakfast, Gold — Café Kaila
In 1984, HONOLULU Magazine established its Hale ‘Aina Awards as the Islands’ first local restaurant awards. Over the past 30 years, the Hale 'Aina Awards are the most prized dining awards in the Islands. Click here to learn more.
Chrissie Kaila Castillo, owner and pancake perfecter of Café Kaila. Café Kaila’s pancakes, topped with fresh fruit.
Photos: Olivier Koning
It took five years for Café Kaila owner Chrissie Kaila Castillo to let go of control. Sort of.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” she says. “I think I’ve been able to take a little step back and not do everything myself. I can let somebody else cut the potatoes today. It’s OK if they’re not all square. I let someone else do the shopping, but [say] ‘You have to make sure you dig through the piles and get only the good bacon.’ I was really anal. Super bad.”
Even so, seven years after the opening of Café Kaila, she’s still in the restaurant every day. She might be on the line, scrambling eggs or bringing out plates with such a cheerful smile that you’d hardly believe she’s the obsessive-compulsive kitchen manager she says she is.
“When I’m not there, I feel anxious,” she says. “I have to know things are coming out OK. That [cooks aren’t] serving a burnt pancake under the nice, fluffy ones. I like to be the quality control and have my finger in everything.”
It’s this obsession with consistency, along with really good pancakes, that explains why Café Kaila continues to win Hale ‘Aina gold awards in an increasingly crowded breakfast category. New breakfast spots may wow with creative takes on eggs and French toast, but Café Kaila’s simple, made-from-scratch menu of pancakes, waffles and omelets has drawn lines out the door for the past seven years. Diners may not know what goes into perfection, but they can taste it.
Castillo swears she’s not such a perfectionist in other areas in her life—“if you look at my car, it’s a disaster!” It’s just with Café Kaila.
“It’s because it took so much to get this place open,” she says.
Café Kaila began in the wine bar Pan e Vino in Waikīkī. Castillo and her classmates were at Pan e Vino’s sister restaurant Mediterraneo, celebrating the completion of an entrepreneurship class at UH. When owner Fabrizio Favale stopped by the table to chat, he learned about Castillo’s business plan for a breakfast spot.
“Why would you want to do that?” Favale asked. Because she liked breakfast, Castillo answered. And, in 2006, she couldn’t find a place outside of Waikīkī that offered breakfast all day.
Favale offered Pan e Vino, which was closed in the mornings. So, every day, from Monday through Friday, Castillo would lug in her George Foreman grill, a butane camp stove, electric griddle, two coolers, plates and cups. She put bacon in front of a fan to lure passersby. But mostly, “it was my family and friends who came to watch Chrissie play café,” she says. And a guy named Dennis “Murph” Murphy, who wandered in for a cup of coffee. Except Castillo, incongruously for someone who wanted to open a breakfast café, didn’t know how to make coffee. So she poured a cup of coffee grinds into a six-cup coffee brewer and served Murph the resulting sludge. That day, he decided, “I’m going to come every morning for pure entertainment value. I just want to see what you’re going to do next.” Murph became one of Castillo’s first regulars, and you can thank him for suggesting the creation of Café Kaila’s malted waffle, golden and crisp with just the right sweetness.
Castillo played café there for three months. That’s when the Department of Health closed her little experiment. The violations included: no permit, no commercial cooking equipment, no vent, no grease trap. She had no idea about any of those things.
But over the next year, she’d learn about them all, intimately. She leased the old Blockbuster space in Market City and hired a contractor to outfit a full kitchen, plumbing, hood and all. She gave him a deposit and bought his tools. The next day, he split town with her money.
With half her budget gone, Castillo had to build the café herself and with the help of friends.
“So that’s why I have such a hard time letting go,” she says. “I know how hard I worked and how long it took me to create what we have. My poor mom had to eat 40 different batches of pancakes before we decided on one that tasted decent enough to serve to people. I feel like if people didn’t know that, they would think I was a crazy person, just a control freak. But this is my creation.”
Café Kaila, Market City Shopping Center, 732-3330, cafe-kaila-hawaii.com.
To find out which other restaurants won awards in the Best Breakfast category, click here.