6 Places That are Making Kaka‘ako the New Foodie Destination for Locals
The food scene in this once-industrial neighborhood gives Chinatown some competition.
Moku Kitchen anchors the new Salt in Kaka‘ako.
Photos: steve czerniak and aaron k. yoshino
Anchored by Salt, Kaka‘ako may finally be the new, shinier rival to Chinatown.
“Back when I opened [in 2007], nothing was happening here and I liked it. I wanted to be hidden. I liked the obscurity … You had to go out and look for us,” says Hank’s Haute Dogs owner Hank Adaniya. “But Hank’s fits here, too. What [Salt] has accomplished is creating something for the younger generation. It’s really cool, this place.”
“It’s a unique and vibrant area,” says Monica Toguchi Ryan, the third-generation owner of Highway Inn, which opened its second location here in 2013. “There are malls, Waikīkī, and pockets of restaurants and bars in a few strip malls. But Kaka‘ako is developing into something with sought-after places, like the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego, Deep Ellum in Dallas and the Marina in San Francisco. We see everyone at our restaurant, from our own frequent diner program members, regular working folks, nearby residents, Pokémon Go players, the surfing community, the more intrepid tourists, local and national celebrities, NFL players, business leaders, people having family gatherings and other local celebrations. Without a doubt, we believe the area will continue to evolve.”
The hand-tossed, wild-mushroom pizza with truffle oil, garlic and fresh thyme.
Exactly a year ago, Moku Kitchen, the latest restaurant concept by award-winning chef Peter Merriman, opened at Salt, and its popularity hasn’t waned yet. There are still long waits and packed tables at happy hour—good luck trying to make a same-day reservation for dinner at a reasonable time on the weekend.
Sprawling over 7,000 square feet, this behemoth anchors the complex, both figuratively and literally. Not only does it occupy the largest restaurant space at Salt, it represents what Kamehameha Schools is trying to achieve here: to create an energetic space shared by both locals and visitors, with a focus on what makes Hawai‘i unique. In this case, it’s the local ingredients sourced by the restaurants, from libations that use locally produced spirits to the Big Island beef used in its burgers. The salad greens are from Waipoli, vine-ripened tomatoes from Hau‘ula, onions from Maui, hearts of palm from the Big Island, mushrooms from Hāmākua, shrimp from Kualoa, macadamia nuts from Waiehu and strawberries from Kula. Even the noodles the restaurant uses in its saimin are crafted by the Iwamoto Natto Factory in Pā‘ia.
The menu is full of dishes you’d want after a long day at work or on a lazy weekend: a hand-tossed, wild-mushroom pizza with truffle oil, garlic and fresh thyme; bulgogi tacos with house-made kim chee, naturally raised pork and chili aioli on from-scratch corn tortillas; and thin, crispy “smashed” burgers you’d find at roadside stands on the Mainland, served on house-baked buns with a side of hand-cut fries dressed in garlic-truffle oil and Parmesan cheese. Pair any of these with one of the 34 beers and two ciders or the dozen wines on tap.
The centerpiece of the kitchen is the expo-rotisserie roaster that’s responsible for several of the restaurant’s standout dishes, including the slow-fire-roasted Big Island prime rib and a succulent rotisserie duck with ginger, a shoyu glaze and mole sauce.
And then there are the cream pies, a signature dessert at any Merriman’s restaurant. While the chocolate-macadamia, banana and haupia are delicious choices, the best-selling strawberry cream pie is the star, with a cloud of whipped cream, guava-jelly glaze and fresh strawberries.
660 Ala Moana Blvd., #145, (808) 591-6658, mokukitchen.com; open daily: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., happy hour: 3 to 5:30 p.m.
Bevy and Bevy Market
When Bevy opened along Auahi Street in 2013, taking over the space vacated by the dive-y sports bar Scores, it was the start of this street’s revitalization. The two-story buildings that ran along this street had so much potential, and businesses—co-working spaces, Aikane Café, Chai Studio, the restaurant incubator Taste by chef Mark Noguchi, then his Snackbox inside the home-furnishing store Pad—rotated in and promptly out. The lone survivor has been Insomnia Espresso Coffee, which has found its niche on Auahi despite the onslaught of other coffee shops including 9Bar HNL in Salt, and Arvo, an Aussie-inspired coffee shop that opened last year in the botanical boutique Paiko.
Bevy, too, has survived, thanks to its eclectic drink list crafted by talented Honolulu mixologist (and co-owner) Christian Self.
The menu has a European feel but with local flavors: a rack of Maui Nui venison with char siu, eggplant, beets and charred pear; a smoked seafood rillette with taro chips; and rich burrata cheese with melon, toasted almonds and aged balsamic vinegar. Happy hour is particularly popular, with $5 libation specials, $5 potato puffs, and oysters on the half shell for $1.50 each.
At the end of 2016, Self and co-owner Timo Lee decided to expand, opening Bevy Market next door. The new venture is part gourmet market, part lunch spot, inspired by those found in New York City. Chef Susan Smolinski, who had worked at Livestock Tavern, MW Restaurant and under Michelin-starred chef Richard Bainbridge in England, opened the kitchen with a menu of gourmet salads and sandwiches. After she left for Maui, Onda Pasta chef Andrea Onetti took over, bringing fresh pasta and Italian flavors to the market. The deli case is stocked with high-quality meats and cheeses—day-aged coppa, porter cheddar, manchego, finocchiona salame—and the market shelves are lined with gourmet imports and locally made items, including Adoboloco hot sauces, coffees, honey, handmade organic soaps, salts, hummus by ‘Ulu Mana and syrups made in-house.
The made-to-order lunch items are worth a short wait. Onetti offers an old-fashioned Reuben, with in-house-cured pastrami, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese on rye bread; a smoked salmon melt with provolone on sourdough; and a hefty lambwich, with shaved lamb, anchovy aioli, crunchy watercress and Pecorino on a crusty baguette. To-go picnics are coming soon.
“Bevy Bar has been open for four years now, and the market is our new expansion,” Lee says. “We’ve seen all the construction in Kaka‘ako, from demolishing the old structures to building Salt and all the condos in the area. It has changed dramatically—and [it’s] becoming the fastest growing and hippest area of Honolulu.”
675 Auahi St., #130, (808) 824-2547, bevyhawaii.com; Market: Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Bar: Mon.–Thu., 4 p.m. to midnight, Fri.–Sat., 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., closed Sundays
In Kaka‘ako, there’s no such thing as too many coffee shops.
Opened in August by couple Steve and Tracey Seta, 9Bar HNL is everything you’d want in a neighborhood coffeehouse. The staff is friendly, the vibe is casual and the coffee lineup is extensive: nitro cold brew, batch brew, iced and perfect shots of espresso pulled with nine bars of pressure, hence the name.
Beyond coffee, this café also serves a variety of teas, juices, drinks with scoops of gelato and a hot chocolate milk topped with scorched marshmallows. There are also bowls—with granola and yogurt for breakfast, savory ones with house-made sausages and poached eggs—and a sizable burrito with baked eggs, roasted potatoes, guacamole, sour cream, house-made salsa, queso fresco and black beans.
And then there are the scuffins, huge, rustic scones in flavors that include chocolate matcha, strawberry and cream cheese, cranberry and white chocolate, and coffee and chocolate. (The café sells mini versions, too.) This summer, the shop debuted savory scuffins, including one studded with bits of jalapeño, bacon and cheddar.
685 Auahi St., #118, (808) 369-2299, 9barhnl.com, Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sat.–Sun., 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Butterfly Ice Cream
Ask Adaniya, one of the longest-renting tenants in Salt, about his new favorite spot in the complex, and he’ll walk you over to Butterfly Ice Cream. “This is the best ice cream,” he says, beaming.
Conveniently located near Adaniya’s hot dog shop, Butterfly Ice Cream opened this year. It’s the inspiration of Singapore-native C.C. Foo, who worked for Nestlé for almost 20 years, in marketing and sales, research and development, and production in the Swiss company’s ice cream division. He moved to Hawai‘i last year with plans to start his own creamery.
“I have a real passion for the fresh, natural treats served [here], and my goal is to put the cream back into ice cream and with interesting, delectable and decadent flavors,” he says. “Nothing makes me happier than putting smiles on people’s faces with a scoop of ice cream.”
Butterfly’s ice creams and sorbets are made from scratch in small batches right in the small shop. Foo uses as many local ingredients as possible—Kona coffee, local honey and Island-grown fruits. The most popular flavors have been brownie batter (a rich chocolate ice cream filled with house-made brownie pieces), black sesame (an ice cream infused with roasted black sesame seeds and black sesame seed paste) and macadamia dulce de leche (a combination of house-made dulce de leche, chopped mac nuts and rich cream).
Because Foo puts so much time and care into each flavor, he doesn’t offer any toppings, much in the way traditional gelato shops don’t because they “are distracting and diminish the true flavor of the ice cream,” he says.
Foo, who doesn’t drink, has also mastered boozy ice creams and sorbets, which are strictly for adults. Flavors include gin and tonic, mimosa, margarita, rum raisin and Irish cream. And all these can be turned into milkshakes.
324 Coral St., Suite 103, (808) 429-4483, butterflycreamery.com; open daily: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Village Bottle Shop & Tasting Room
Born and raised in Waialua, Tim Golden didn’t know much about craft beers until he moved to Los Angeles. And then he became obsessed.
Now a certified cicerone and experienced home brewer, Golden returned to Hawai‘i five years ago and, in his spare time, launched the blog Beer In Hawai‘i, his way of fueling his passion and showcasing the quality craft beer being brewed locally.
Then, without any experience working in a bar or restaurant, Golden, along with partner Daryn Ogino (who runs a mortgage company), opened Village Bottle Shop & Tasting Room in August, around the corner from Moku Kitchen. They wanted to create a gathering spot for beer lovers, much like City Beer Store in San Francisco, which combines a beer niche retail space with a tasting bar.
“Beer is a communal thing,” Golden says. “We wanted people to feel like, when they come in here, they’re part of a village, like it’s a second home.”
Village is both craft-beer shop and café, boasting more than 400 brews, 16 of them on draft. Many of the beers sold here are hard-to-find labels and releases. On any given day, you can sample Oregon-based Gigantic’s super hoppy Axes of Evil or Seattle’s Urban Family Stellar tripel or King Tides IPA by Maui Brewing Co.
“We really work hard to bring in different beers from all over the world,” Golden says. “Sometimes, I’ll bring in things even though I know they may be tough to sell, but I know the beer is something special … One of our goals is to help customers venture into new tastes and flavors, so stocking a wide array of different beers is important.”
Village also has a small menu of noshable foods—Primo popcorn, Hawaiian Chip Co. taro and sweet potato chips, beef jerky and an array of from-scratch savory pot pies by Casey Burns of HI Pies, including Thai curry vegetable, steak and stout, and classic chicken.
“There’s a lot of love and labor that goes into them and I think it shows,” Golden says.
675 Auahi St., #121, (808) 369-0688, Sun.–Wed., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thu.–Sat., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Remember to get your parking validated if you park in the 266-stall structure. While it’s free for the first hour without validation, the fee quickly jumps to $6 per hour thereafter. Validation will keep parking fees to $1 for the second hour and $2 for the third hour. Stay longer, though, and pay $6 for each additional hour.
Karen’s Kitchen survives in Kaka‘ako by serving old-school plate lunches.
When Karen Yamaoka first opened Karen’s Kitchen on Cooke Street in 1993, Kaka‘ako was a mix of industrial businesses and warehouses. Now there’s a slew of new eateries just down the street.
While the neighborhood has changed, Karen’s Kitchen has stuck with what it does best: big helpings of comfort food. Most of the dishes on the menu were there the day it opened. The best-sellers include the baked spaghetti that tastes like a favorite school lunch comfort food, pūlehu ribs and sweet-sour pork. Be prepared for a lot of food for the money, or order a mini.
Betty Boop memorabilia—something her daughter used to collect—is still scattered throughout the dining room and the tables are still covered with plastic tablecloths. Business isn’t booming as it once was in the late ’90s, but Yamaoka hopes new customers will stop by with the redevelopment.
“It’s different,” says Yamaoka, waving at the regulars trickling into the restaurant on a recent weekday at lunch. “The competition is good for me,” she says. “We’re not going to change. We’re just staying this way.”