7 Kaimukī Sweet Spots to Satisfy Your Sweet Cravings
When it comes to desserts, Kaimukī is tops.
Via Gelato flavors include stracciatella chocolate chip, peppermint Oreo and green tea.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Kaimukī earned a sweet reputation for its bakeries decades ago.
Old-timers fondly recall the danishes from Dick’s Bakery, the homemade bread from Choice Bakery, the butter rolls and long johns from 9th Avenue Bakery, the pumpkin and custard pies from Bea’s Bakery, and the chantilly cake and pancakes from Tropic Bakery. Later, there were decorated cakes from Cakeland and giant glazed doughnuts from Kimuraya Bakery.
And then they all closed, one by one, replaced with trendy restaurants, small boutiques and cubicled offices.
But, in recent years, there’s been a noticeable resurgence of dessert and sweet shops in Kaimukī, particularly along Wai‘alae and 12th avenues. In a single year, three sweet spots—a bakery, a cheesecake boutique and a gelato shop—moved into the area, just blocks from each other. And Kaimukī’s newer restaurants—Koko Head Café, Koa Pancake House, a renovated 12th Ave Grill, Town and Kaimukī Superette—have lured more and more people to this sleepy neighborhood in search of tasty bites.
“It’s definitely become a food destination,” says Ron Arnold, president of the Kaimukī Business and Professional Association, pastor at Kaimukī Christian Church and longtime area resident, who recently indulged in a slice of cheesecake at Otto Cake on 12th Avenue. “In fact, the thing I love about Kaimukī is that it’s still a walking community with a downtown atmosphere. It’s got its own identity, and people come from all over the island to Wai‘alae Avenue. It’s our Restaurant Row.”
There are a few established places—like Café Laufer and JJ Bistro & French Pastry on Wai‘alae—that built their businesses on their pastries, cakes and profiteroles. And there are smaller ones—like Jewel or Juice on Koko Head Avenue and the Pillbox Pharmacy on 11th Avenue—that lure customers with a few sweet treats. (Jewel or Juice is known for its smoothies and acai bowls; the Pharmacy serves Cascade Glacier-brand ice cream.) And most restaurants here, including Big City Diner with its homemade bread pudding topped with a haupia creme sauce, and Café Miro with its famous crème brûlée, have sought-after desserts on their menus.
“When you look back over the last 15 years, oh, my gosh, the growth,” says Lane Muraoka, owner and president of Big City Diner. “There are so many choices. You can eat at a different place every single day the whole week. It’s really a cool place to hang out.”
1. Via Gelato
Via Gelato, in flavors that include strawberry liliko‘i, black sesame and green tea.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
On a wall in the dining area at Via Gelato, an artisan gelato shop on 12th Avenue, there’s a small bulletin board littered with scraps of paper and napkins scribbled with suggestions for new flavors.
There are the familiar (lemon meringue pie, peach cobbler), the nostalgic (Tootsie Roll, Snickers), the trendy (Thai basil, maple bacon) and the, well, more interesting suggestions (corn, meat jun).
In fact, since opening in March 2014, Via Gelato has served more than 100 flavors, although not all of them end up in the regular rotation. Adding flavors to the menu is a thoughtful process. And “wow” factor just isn’t enough.
“I try to make things that a lot of people will love and want to talk about,” says owner Melissa Bow, who garnered a fiercely devoted following when she started serving her handmade gelato and freshly baked waffle cones from a truck back in 2012. “The flavors have to have some kind of emotional value. You want people to connect with the flavor and feel strongly about it.”
Which explains why flavors like Frosted Flakes, Snickerdoodle and PB & J do so well.
“For me, it’s about creating flavors that people can relate to,” says kitchen manager Julie Newman, who concocts flavors alongside Bow. “Even better if they can bring you back to your childhood.”
Despite the diverse offerings—Fluorescent Frosting (a mistake involving too much food coloring), Black Sesame, Li Hing Shiso—the most popular flavors are still the basics: chocolate and vanilla. And everything, even the fudge and caramel that gets swirled into base gelato flavors, is made from scratch.
“It takes time,” Bow says, “but it’s way better.”
1142 12th Ave., 732-2800, viagelatohawaii.com
2. Hawaiian Nougat Co.
Hawaiian Nougat Co’s nougat is packed with macadamia nuts.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
In a white pastry chef coat, smiling, Liz Anderson carefully unwraps a piece of vanilla nougat with visible chunks of macadamia nuts.
“Everything but two ingredients in this is local,” she says. The egg whites are from O‘ahu eggs, the cane sugar and vanilla from Maui, and the macadamia nuts and honey from the Big Island. When she makes chocolate nougat, she uses cacao and nibs grown on O‘ahu. Her caramel is made from local milk, sugar and butter. And the fruits, including dehydrated pineapple, and coffee that she sometimes adds to the vanilla nougat base are locally sourced, too. (She even walked into the nearby crack seed shop for li hing mui and incorporated that once.)
That drive toward local is the reason she decided to venture into nougat-making, starting Hawaiian Nougat Co. in 2008 and moving into a larger Kaimukī location two years ago.
“When I first looked at the ingredients in nougat, I thought, ‘We have all of these ingredients here,’” she says. “I realized 90 percent of the ingredients could be sourced here. This is a truly Hawaiian product.”
Anderson, 58, worked most of her career in finance in San Francisco, followed by several years as a special-education teacher in Hawai‘i. When she burned out from teaching, she signed up for a three-month-long pastry program at École de Cuisine LaVarenne in Paris, where she learned how to make a proper nougat.
And it’s not like the hard, sticky Big Hunk bar or the fluffy center of a Milky Way.
Traditional nougat de Montélimar (the small town of Montélimar in France is known as the nougat capital) is a dense, white candy made of egg whites, sugar and honey, studded with toasted almonds and pistachios. The texture is like a chewy marshmallow, slightly tacky but still soft and smooth. And Anderson—with her staff that includes students from the nearby
Hawai‘i School for the Deaf and Blind—nails it.
Her French-inspired nougat, all made in an 11,000-square-foot production and retail space on Wai‘alae Avenue, can be found at various retailers, including Whole Foods and Red Pineapple. She sells them at her shop and online, too.
“I like that it’s in between taffy and a marshmallow,” she says. “It’s simple. I use natural ingredients. And I can put whatever I want inside.”
3613 Wai‘alae Ave., 926-4885, hawaiiannougat.com
3. Chocolate + Vanilla Bakery
A woman shyly walked into the tidy little Chocolate + Vanilla Bakery on 12th Avenue and, without making eye contact with owner/baker Jill Yamashita, ordered, “My usual two.”
With just a nod and a smile, Yamashita slid open the display case, grabbed two oversize pieces of her decadent caramel macadamia nut brownies, and packed them to go. The woman left as quietly as she came in.
“She comes in two to three times a week and orders the same thing,” Yamashita says, smiling. “And I don’t even know her name.”
That’s what happens when you run your own bakery, bake everything yourself, even manage the social media. You might not know the names of your regular customers—but you always know what they order.
Yamashita, who went to Le Cordon Bleu in Portland and worked at all the Roy’s Restaurants on O‘ahu, opened Chocolate + Vanilla Bakery with her sister, Jayna Matsukawa, in April 2014. (Matsukawa has since left.) The sisters, whose parents run Carval Café in Restaurant Row, both grew up baking and cooking at home. While it’s not the fancy boulangerie Yamashita dreamed of running, this not-quite-500-square-foot bakery is plenty work. She pulls 10-hour days, six days a week, more if she’s baking for a special event or big order.
Customers come from as far away as Mililani for her cheery macarons, fudgy brownies and Instagram-perfect cupcakes in such flavors as blueberry streusel, haupia-filled, red velvet, and the bakery’s signature chocolate and vanilla. She also makes single servings of crème brûlée and panna cotta and sells the crunchy edges of her rich brownies in a clamshell for $5.
“I try to make desserts for all generations,” she says. “And this is really an up-and-coming area. It’s just getting better.”
1115 12th Ave., 737-2462, @chocolateandvanilla808
4. Café Laufer
Café Laufer’s banana Oreo torte stacked with white and chocolate cake, fresh bananas, pastry cream, Oreos and a cookie crust.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
It’s no surprise that customers, even after 20 years, don’t think of Café Laufer as a place that serves meals.
When you walk into the quaint eatery on Wai‘alae Avenue, you’re met with two large glass display cases filled with perfectly crafted pastries—apple strudel, buttery croissants, flaky napoleons, custard-filled profiteroles, streusel-topped cobblers, fruit-filled muffins, and classic tarts and tortes that you might find in a boulangerie in Paris.
Who’s looking at the menu?
“To be honest, some people don’t even know we make food,” says chef Melvin Dela Cruz Avecilla, who’s been cooking and baking at the café for 15 years. “They just come for the desserts and the coffee.” (The Kona coffee is definitely a draw, each cup brewed by a $15,000 German machine that also grinds whole beans.)
While the food menu has expanded over the years to include gourmet sandwiches and plates of bratwurst, the dessert array has grown, too. The most recent additions include a peanut butter ganache bar, panna cotta and a chocolate-banana-PB tart.
The signature dessert has been on the menu since the beginning: the formidable banana Oreo torte with layers of white and chocolate cake, pastry cream, fresh bananas, Oreos and a cookie crust. And fans don’t stop at the slice; they buy the entire cake for $59.50.
“Sometimes people come in and buy three cakes,” Avecilla says, shaking his head. “The whole cake.”
There’s a dedicated team of bakers at Café Laufer, who come into the restaurant before daybreak to roll out pastry dough and mix cake batter. All of the recipes originated with owner Cyrus Goo, who has long insisted on using real butter in his baked goods.
It’s the attention to detail that’s made Café Laufer a benchmark for desserts.
“Honestly, I like the competition,” Avecilla says about the new bakeries and sweet shops opening up in Kaimukī. “It forces me and my staff to up our game. We always have to think of something different to draw the customers back.”
3565 Wai‘alae Ave., 735-7717, cafelaufer.com
5. Otto Cake
Otto with his famous cheesecakes.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
On the invite list to the uber-exclusive Vanity Fair Oscars after-party in Los Angeles: Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, with their golden statuettes, Reece Witherspoon, Jay Z and Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Keaton—and Scott “Otto” McDonough.
Credit McDonough’s cheesecake.
The owner of Otto Cake on 12th Avenue got invited by a customer who visited his cheesecake shop. His father was a big-time producer in L.A. The two became friends, and, when he heard McDonough would be in town during the annual Academy Awards, he got him into one of the hottest parties in Hollywood.
“I just can’t believe the cake has taken me this far,” he says, laughing.
McDonough started baking New York-style cheesecakes—his mom’s favorite—in 1990, selling them wholesale to small restaurants and coffee shops. In July 2009 he opened a 300-square-foot cheesecake boutique in Chinatown, offering more than 90 different flavors of the cake, from carrot to haupia chocolate to a Key lime cheesecake that impressed Billy Joel so much he invited McDonough backstage at one of his concerts to personally thank him.
But after a barrage of threats and unsavory loiterers around his shop, McDonough decided to move to Kaimukī in 2013. Bigger space, cheaper rent, more parking—and his sales are up 200 percent.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “I’ve opened up my business to this bigger thing just by leaving Chinatown. It’s sad, because all of my friends are still down there, but it’s really been a great move.”
Though his space is bigger, the demand has grown, and every available refrigerated spot in the new location is devoted to cheesecake.
The Amazing Plain cheesecake is still the most popular, though his customers enjoy indulging in the more adventurous offerings like chocolate caramel bacon and candy corn.
What makes his cheesecakes so good people pay $5 a slice for them?
He says it’s all in the process.
“I’m the same person, baking all the cakes, all by my one arm,” McDonough says. “Most cheesecakes are done by machine. But I make them one at a time, with regular kitchen ovens like in your home. I’m serious. I’m still doing it the same little way.”
1127 12th Ave., 834-6886, ottocake.com
6. Sconees Bakery
Sconee’s lemon/liliko‘i bars and blueberry scones.
The name actually doesn’t say it all.
Sconees Bakery was founded 1999 by the former head baker at Liberty House’s popular Henry’s Market. He made killer scones.
But he left a couple of years later, selling his bakery and recipes to a few investors, who added such items as Spam rolls, manapua, coffee cake and banana bread to the menu.
Today, only one of those investors remains. Gary Chong, who still manages to keep his day job as a financial adviser, operates the 600-square-foot bakery on 12th Avenue, even baking his own recipe for lemon and liliko‘i bars.
While freshly baked scones, particularly blueberry, are still the bakery’s top seller—Chong sells between 500 and 700 of them a day, more on the weekends—they’re not the only items that do well. The pies, especially the custard pumpkin, are often sold out.
Sconees still feels like an old neighborhood bakery, where people pop in for a quick pastry and a cup of coffee on their way to work. Chong says he has regular customers who come in every morning for their scone and coffee.
“Restaurants have come and gone,” he says, “but we’re still here.”
1117 12th Ave., 734-4024
7. JJ Bistro & French Pastry
One of JJ Bistro’s chocolate pyramids is flanked by liliko‘i and guava liliko‘i mousses.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
When Praseuth “JJ” Luangkhot first started making pastries on O‘ahu 16 years ago, he was wholesaling them to restaurants from his small shop in ‘Aiea.
It was bad timing—the economic downturn after Sept. 11 hurt his business—and a bad retail location.
He soon moved to Kaimukī, adding sandwiches and pizzas to his menu of French pastries just to survive.
But his food—a fusion of French and Laotian flavors—caught on with customers and soon he was expanding into the adjacent space and doubling his seating area.
Still, the desserts are his mainstay, particular the signature chocolate pyramid, a sinfully decadent dark-chocolate mousse mixed with chocolate cake and shaped like a pyramid, then dusted with cocoa powder. He sells between 60 and 100 of them a day. On Valentine’s Day alone, Luangkhot sold more than 200 pyramids.
“It’s unbelievable,” he says, laughing.
The next top seller is also the most recent addition to his dessert lineup, which hovers around 45 items.
For years, Luangkhot has made a liliko‘i mousse that looked like a cheesecake.
“For 15 years, customers would ask every single day, ‘Is that cheesecake?’” he says. “I keep saying no.”
Then one day he decided to make a cheesecake with a housemade liliko‘i marmalade—and sold 40 on the first day.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says, shaking his head.
His French-style, Hawai‘i-infused pastries are so popular, he’s opening three bakeries in Japan this year and a new restaurant concept near Ala Moana Center in May. Called Jean-Marc Honolulu—it’s named after the late Jean-Marc Burillier, the pastry chef at Maxim’s de Paris and his mentor—this 120-seat eatery will offer his signature pastries and gourmet coffee in a new building on the corner of Rycroft and Sheridan streets.
“Anybody can do a beautiful cake, but it’s hard to get a very good taste,” he says. “Our thing is the last bite. It has to be good.”
3447 Wai‘alae Ave., 739-0993, jjfrenchpastry.com