2019 Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: The Best Breakfast Restaurants in Hawai‘i
At Café Kaila, Koko Head Café and Over Easy, success comes from memories of favorite family mornings, and some spectacular versions of home cooking.
HONOLULU Magazine’s gathering the top breakfast and brunch restaurants (including Café Kalia and Over Easy) for BrunchFest presented by American Savings Bank. It will be a morning of delicious sweet and savory bites, bloody marys and mimosas, lawn games, entertainment and more. Join us for a relaxed Sunday Funday vibe on March 8, 2020 at the Ho‘okupu Center. Click here for ticket details.
KĀLUA PIG HASH FROM OVER EASY in Kailua
Video: Aaron K. Yoshino
Best Breakfast: Gold
When people speak of Café Kaila and its colorful fruit-piled buttermilk pancakes, kālua pig eggs Benedict and other dishes, they usually also mention the warm family atmosphere chef and owner Chrissie Kaila Castillo seems to whip up fresh for each new arrival. But it’s the apron our photographer notices. “It was a gift from a regular,” Castillo says. Your regulars give you aprons? “I must have at least 200. Some of my guests even made them.”
If further testimony were needed to confirm Café Kaila’s golden status in the breakfast firmament, this would be the clincher. But it already has its origin story, starting as a whimsical pop-up project in Castillo’s senior year entrepreneurship class at the University of Hawai‘i. And it has its lines—famous back when lines were, you know, not really anything but a hassle.
So, instead, we ask, “What did you have for breakfast as a kid?”
“Mom was a full-time teacher and couldn’t cook much of the time,” she replies, “so she made it up with breakfast: doughnuts, apple pie, chocolate cake from Napoleon’s Bakery, salami and cheese sandwiches. Our house was so famous for breakfast we had all the kids in the neighborhood wanting to come.”
Famous for breakfast—it has a certain prophetic ring. But before fulfilling that prophecy at Café Kaila, Castillo first had to borrow money from her uncle and parents after burning through her small-business loan. “Mom would run the cash register while I’d run out, take orders, run back, make food, run back with coffee, run back …” (That sentence with five “runs” in it is a clue to Castillo’s drive, which led her to create 20 recipes before settling on one for her amazing buttermilk pancakes, so tasty and texturally pleasing that syrup is unnecessary.)
In the early days, she says, “friends from when I was waitressing would come by to eat, see I was busy, and without saying anything would get up and help. One day a regular saw the sweat dripping off my face and just went back and started washing dishes. Eric became my first employee.”
Despite a wide choice of tables at 3:45 p.m., a regular named Sandy takes a spot at the counter, near the action and Castillo. (She came by earlier to give Castillo this magazine’s July issue with Café Kaila’s selection as a Best of Honolulu winner.) In Castillo’s world there’s little differentiation between friends, guests (as Castillo calls customers), employees (“I’ve got 23 family members; they all work here”), even suppliers (seeing a produce delivery crew carrying out recyclable clamshells, she says, “We try to take care of them”).
But let’s not forget the food. It’s sumptuous, in potlatch-worthy portions, made fresh and from scratch with quality ingredients like eggs from Waimānalo’s OK Poultry. The kālua pig is roasted with ti leaves to impart an imu flavor. Order fruit for your pancakes—you really should—and it comes out in heaps and mounds, perfect for sharing. Which is what Café Kaila seems to be all about.
Koko Head Café
Best Breakfast: Silver
Best Brunch: Silver
When a celebrity or television personality opens a restaurant, it’s always to cash in on the moment—unless we’re talking about Lee Anne Wong and her relationship to Koko Head Café, which opened in 2014 in Kaimukī. “A local place where locals would go: That was the intention,” she says, on a call from Maui, where she moved in March with her 16-month-old baby and fiancé—“for the same as a two-bedroom apartment in Honolulu we get a house and a yard, and only a 20-minute commute to work” at a new restaurant she’s about to open in Lahaina. Maui is also just a short hop to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, where she’s executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines.
Today, along with a line of tourists forming 15 minutes before the 7 a.m. start, Wong has achieved her dream of regulars who depend on her for their fix of reimagined breakfast favorites: breakfast bibimbap in a skillet (“everyone’s thrown last night’s Korean in a bowl, right?” she asks), cornflake French toast, kim chee cheddar bacon scones, a Reuben frittata with kim chee kraut that reflects her love of Lower East Side Jewish food shops like Russ and Daughters. Dim sum at 7 a.m.? She made it and they came. “Early morning dim sum was a New York City thing I loved,” she says; it inspired her 2014 book Dumplings All Day Wong: A Cookbook of Asian Delights from a Top Chef.
Talking to her, you can read her menu as a weaving of key culinary memories. “The bibimbap is a reference to my very late nights and early mornings in Korea-town in New York with beer and whiskey and friends,” she says. Savory mashups like breakfast congee (bacon, Portuguese sausage, heritage ham, soft poached eggs, cinnamon bacon croutons and scallions) evoke “nights after you and your friends closed up your restaurants and went to places to drink beer and unwind and eat,” she says. Cornflake French toast pushes buttons people probably don’t even realize they have: “People love it,” Wong says. “But the funny story behind it is the idea came from Burger King French toast sticks—they deep-fried and served them in a little french fry packet. The flavor was of cinnamon and maple and you’d dip them in the little fake maple syrup packet.”
SEE ALSO: Chef Lee Anne Wong’s Got One Last Chance
And those are just the standards. “When you include our specials,” she says, “there are also 12 new items we’re running every day. Our daily fish, our daily poke, our daily dumplings, our daily salad. Plus four to six specials on the board.”
It all makes twisted sense when you consider that the aspiring fashion designer (and hockey player) from upstate New York got her big break at a three-star revolutionary Nordic restaurant, Aquavit, helmed by a young Ethiopian war refugee adopted by a Swedish couple. “Marcus Samuelsson was our executive chef and he and chef de cuisine Nils Norén took me under their wing,” she says. “I was a line chef, didn’t know anything, had a terrible attitude as line chefs do, and they let me develop my own ideas. By the second year I was running the upstairs café and creating its daily specials, a huge responsibility for somebody who’s a line chef.”
She’s paying that break forward at Koko Head Café. “I try to do that for my cooks,” currently sous chefs Anthony Smiley and Andrew Recca. “I let them come up with ideas for daily specials; it’s a way for them to work on their ideas.”
Wong herself benefits from knowing the café is in creative hands as she works on the new Lahaina restaurant and prepares a licensing deal in Tokyo with a well-established Japanese restaurant group.
“In New York I was never into the see-and-be-seen scene,” she reflects. Instead, she was “just working those chef hours, getting into the underbelly—I didn’t go out, didn’t go partying. I was in it for the food.” And so are we—especially when it’s hers.
Best Breakfast: Bronze
If the spark of creation for some breakfast restaurateurs comes from memories of splurges past surrounded by family and friends, for others it’s an obsession with giving people what they themselves didn’t get: maybe a warm family atmosphere, maybe a favorite dish cooked with love, maybe a surprise of something spectacular and over-the-top.
At the Kailua café Over Easy, Jennifer and Nik Lobendahn are having those kinds of dreams for you, too. Dreams that include Cinnamon Toast Crunch custard French toast with crème fraîche; plate-sized crispy edge pancakes packed with cream cheese and blueberries; a dome of creamy potato purée poured over tomato jam, bacon and French bread; and an egg-topped kālua pork hash wreathed in Nik’s own green goddess dressing.
“My dad was a bartender and my mom went to work early,” says Bay Area-born Jennifer. “From the time I was 5, I was on my own. Breakfast was white toast with butter and a little sugar.”
For Nik, “honestly, the main reason I wanted to open a breakfast place is I wanted a family life.” He grew up switching homes between Kailua and Kahuku. “Our father was a very abusive man and we had to escape. My mom was a nurse. She showed me what hard work was. She was a single mom raising three wild boys, but also worked all the hours of the day and night to put food on the table. We didn’t listen and we barely went to school.”
Video: Aaron K. Yoshino
Today, says Jennifer, “We live down the street from the restaurant.” The Lobendahns have two children, 7 and 5. “They’re great,” Nik says. “We have so much fun together. A breakfast place allows me to be home during dinnertime.”
Jennifer waitressed at a Japanese restaurant all through high school in Pinole Valley, and went on to get her CPA license. “Somehow I always find my way back into food,” she laughs. “It took us seven years of saving to open Over Easy. For our wedding we asked people to give money to open a restaurant.”
When Nik was young, he says, “I really grew to love cooking breakfast for my brothers—Portuguese sausage, eggs and rice.” But he would get a break every summer. “My uncle would come; he helped raise us. He was a gay man from San Francisco basically living with three local boys and he would come every summer and cook breakfast. Hash browns. Skillet potatoes with some eggs and sausage. Then we’d go to Waimea afterwards and jump the rock.”
Nik, who’s the cook and recipe half of Over Easy, sees breakfast as an extension of those love-filled, carefree summers. “Breakfast is the only meal where you can have everything at the same time: sweet, fatty, sour. At breakfast, nobody judges you, nobody ever looks at you like you’re weird, for having dessert with dinner. You get to choose what bite you want.” He sums it up: “You just keep moving the fork.”