How a katsu sandwich got me hooked on healthy eats

Coco Bloom Kitchen's kawaii Japanese-style sandos are a gateway to a local organic menu
tonkatsu sandwich

This is a story of how a really great tonkatsu sandwich became my gateway drug to Coco Bloom Kitchen’s local organic menu of power salads, jam toasts and smoothies.

I’m yearning to travel again, especially to Japan, where eating everything I come across is the only item on my agenda. So while I’m scrolling on Instagram, a photo of a katsu sandwich stops me mid-swipe. The sheer thickness of this tonkatsu sando is arresting — it’s far thicker than the triangle sandwiches I’ve snacked on outside Japanese train stations. The katsu-to-bread ratio is astonishing, nestled with thin layers of red cabbage and katsu sauce inside toasted Japanese white bread, crusts removed. To a katsu sando aficionado, this is a thing of beauty. 

tonkatsu sandwich
Tonkatsu sandwich. Photo: Thomas Obungen

The sandwich, I discover, is at a new cafe in Kaimuki next to Higoto Japanese Eatery called Coco Bloom Kitchen. Even more intriguing, the cafe has fruit and cream toasts and fruit sandwiches too. This is my kind of shop.

See also: New Higoto brings elevated bento, musubi to Kaimuki

The first order of business is the tonkatsu sando ($10.50). Pork loin is marinated overnight in shio koji, a porridge-like marinade made from rice innoculated with koji spores and salt, to tenderize and impart umami. The cutlets are coated in rice-bread panko crumbs and deep-fried in rice bran oil, making this katsu essentially gluten-free. It’s nestled on shredded red cabbage drizzled with a fruity tonkatsu sauce on toasted La Tour Bakehouse shokupan bread, which can be switched out for gluten-free bread. Living up to its aesthetics, this is one of the best tonkatsu sandwiches I’ve tasted. 

tonkatsu burger
Tonkatsu burger. Photo: Thomas Obungen

See also: Farmers market finds: Katsu sandwiches in Kakaako

Coco Bloom also makes two porky katsu burgers. The first is the tonkatsu ($13), which has a generous schmear of house-made aioli that stings with raw garlic pungency, a sharp contrast with the usual sweeter tonkatsu sauce, on an eggy La Tour brioche bun. The cutlet is just as thick as the one in the sandwich. 

The second is a menchi (minced) katsu burger ($12), using an all-pork patty with a copious amount of diced onion for texture play and sweetness. Like the tonkatsu, it’s coated in gluten-free panko and deep-fried in rice bran oil. The menchi katsu sits tall on a puffy brioche bun with red cabbage; its sauce is a mix of tonkatsu sauce, house-made mayo and a touch of the house-made Bloom vinaigrette dressing. It’s tangy and edgy, which does wonders for the juicy pork patty. 

menchi katsu burger
Menchi katsu burger. Photo: Thomas Obungen

The three sandwiches are equally delicious and satisfying, but while the tonkatsu sandwich is the best-seller, the menchi katsu is my top choice.

On a separate visit, I want something sweet and settle on the organic blueberry jam and fresh whipped cream toast ($5.50). Knowing I need to balance this out with actual food, I order the Bloom Chopped Salad ($13) to accompany it with a honey lemonade ($5), Coco Bloom’s signature drink.

Blueberry jam and cream toast
Blueberry jam and fresh cream toast. Photo: Thomas Obungen

Surprisingly, the chopped salad is my worth it winner. Its 13 components create engaging layers of texture and flavor. There’s crunchy kale, creamy-sweet kabocha pumpkin, crisp watermelon radish and more, all chopped up and dressed with the Bloom vinaigrette, the magical dressing owner Yui Kishi would make at home to get her carnivorous husband to eat his veggies. I’m not sure what’s in it, but it’s incredibly balanced with acidity and a touch of sweetness — I licked my bowl clean and wished for another.

For the record, I’ve never said this about salad before. I’ve already decided my next meal at Coco Bloom will be the Purple & Green salad ($11.50) with purple cabbage, arugula, mushroom, red onion and kale. 

See also: Oahu, these are the katsu sandwiches you need right now

Bloom Chopped Salad
Bloom chopped salad. Photo: Thomas Obungen

I tuck into the toast for dessert. The fresh whipped cream is sweetened with cane sugar and finished with organic blueberry jelly. It pairs best with a dark roast coffee. Other jelly options include papaya and strawberry. 

The lemonade is made with local Meyer lemons and loads of honey from Oahu Honey Co. Lemons are sliced thinly and placed in honey to steep. When it’s ready, the liquid gold is scooped into a cup and mixed with ice and sparkling water. It’s neither too sweet nor too tart, but a bitter edge sets it apart from other lemonades. Instead of sparkling water, you can have it with cranberry juice for a dollar more. 

Local honey lemonade
Local honey lemonade. Photo: Thomas Obungen

On my most recent visit, I score a limited strawberry cream fruits sandwich ($8), a specialty rarely found outside of Japan. Just think of eating a handheld strawberry shortcake and you’ll understand why it’s so good. I’m told they source local strawberries when possible. The cream is whipped fresh with cane sugar and a touch of sour cream to add a different flavor dimension that makes you think there’s “something” in there, but you can’t put your finger on it. This fruit sandwich is a cloud of strawberries and cream bliss. 

strawberry fruits sandwich
Strawberry milk smoothie and strawberry fruits sandwich. Photo: Thomas Obungen

If you’re going all out, the ichigo (strawberry) milk smoothie is the perfect pairing as it’s essentially the fruits sandwich (without the bread) blended up into a creamy drink. It’s simple and naturally sweet. 

Iwaki and Yui Kishi
Iwaki and Yui Kishi, owners of Coco Bloom Kitchen. Photo: Thomas Obungen

Yui Kishi was in Los Angeles to open a bento shop when the pandemic broke out. Fearing they would not be able to return home to Hawaii, she and her husband Iwaki quickly packed up their belongings and came home to plan their next move. 

Kishi’s original plan was to open her bento shop in Hawaii. However, since Higoto was selling donburi and musubi next door, she pivoted to making food with a focus on supporting local farmers and purveyors. When we eat well, we live well, she reasoned, and healthy food shouldn’t just be healthy, it should taste delicious too.

I concur. It’s the only way many of us will start eating better. I mean, I didn’t think that a katsu sandwich could turn me into a salad lover. But it’s 2020 — anything can happen, sweetie. 

Coco Bloom Kitchen opened in the space formerly home to Cafe Delight, another Japanese cafe and pastry house that closed about a year ago. In the same center as Times Supermarket, the location was ideal for a takeout-only business because it has good foot traffic, plenty of free parking, and a good-size kitchen. It joins the growing list of businesses that, despite all odds, opened during the pandemic. In a sense, it’s blossoming: Coco Bloom’s food is starting to sell out. Try to go early for the best selection. 

Coco Bloom Kitchen
Kaimuki Shopping Center
3221 Waialae Ave. Suite A-3
Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-4 p.m. or until sold out