Battle of the Brunches: Koko Head Cafe vs. Bills Sydney

New spots Koko Head Cafe and Bills Sydney introduce novel dishes, but in very different ways.


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Left to right: The breakfast spread at Bills Sydney and Koko Head Cafe.
Photos: Steve Czerniak

My ideal pancake has a lot in common with my ideal man: tall, tender and there for me in the morning. And like men, while I have a favorite (the one at home), I also have a wandering eye for the new hotness.

Enter Bills and Koko Head Cafe: two new places that serve pancakes with supreme confidence. “Bills is famous for its pancakes,” servers are quick to inform. In Japan, they attract two-hour lines. At Koko Head Cafe, the chef promised pancakes so good I’d have to write about them.

Pancake challenge accepted.

Koko Head Cafe

Inside the restaurant, formerly 12th Ave Grill.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon

First up, Koko Head Cafe. Except—oh, that wandering eye—when I opened the menu, I completely forgot about the pancakes. Confronted by a cornflake French toast, reuben frittata and bourbon milkshake with candied bacon, what would you have done? Pancakes, the love of my life, were forgotten (my husband’s seen that before).  


Cornflake French toast and breakfast bibimbap.
Photos: Steve Czerniak

And what an affair: The French toast, rolled in cornflakes, is as crunchy as Popeye’s fried chicken. Served a la mode with frosted flake gelato and sugared bacon, this is dessert for breakfast. And you’ve never had eggs like this—a pastrami sandwich reincarnated as a reuben frittata with housemade pastrami, kimchee sauerkraut and Thousand Island sauce. The Don Buri Chen is a meat fest that surprisingly keeps gluttony in check—the pickles bring the miso-smoked pork, five-spice pork belly, chicharron and just-barely cooked, creamy eggs back to the edge of reason. (The dish is named for William Chen, formerly the chef at Beachhouse at the Moana, now doing his own thing with Fresh Box.) The only real letdown that day was the bourbon milkshake, more the consistency of a white Russian than a thick shake.

The menu is divided into sections that are somewhat arbitrary and don’t do much to help the decision-making. Some sections are cheeky, such as “Kung Fu Fighting,” befitting a gregarious TV chef. Lee Anne Wong, who partnered with Kevin Hanney to open Koko Head Cafe, competed on the first-ever season of Top Chef. She didn’t win, but she did well for herself, landing a spin-off show and other TV gigs. She moved to Hawaii about a year ago to see about a boy. “I met my boyfriend over breakfast,” she says.

Lucky boy, if he gets to eat like this regularly. Which I’m guessing he doesn’t, since she’s spending seven days a week cooking breakfast for everyone else.

It wasn’t until a second visit that I finally tried the pancakes. The bacon version (a fresh fruit option is also available, for the virtuous among us) is similar to the French toast, with bacon and the same sop-it-up-till-it’s-gone black-pepper maple sauce. Ricotta in the pancakes gives them a slight tang and keeps them extra moist, so much so that the stack reminds me of a cream-soaked tres leches cake. They are delicious, but the French toast still rises to the top.

Koko Head Cafe takes everything comfortable and makes it new again, from eggs to dumplings (she has a cookbook coming out soon: Dumplings All Day Wong). Sure, throwing three kinds of meat (bacon, ham, Portuguese sausage) into the congee gives rice porridge instant sex appeal, but it’s the creative touch of cheddar cheese and cinnamon-sugared croutons that makes it worth returning to.

Brunch plates $6 to $18, Koko Head Cafe, 1145c 12th Ave., 732-8920,

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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