New Windward Café Has Singaporean Flair and Weekend Laksa
More than coffee and French pastries, Café Kopi in Kailua has laksa that Southeast Asian expats are calling legit.
This is definitely one of those “if you know, you know” kind of spots. If you’re driving on Kihapai, the Kailua backstreet, and see the sign for Café Kopi, you may wonder, what the heck is kopi?
Kailua residents know Kihapai Street. And now many of them know that kopi is a traditional coffee drink served in Singapore and Malaysia.
I’d heard about Café Kopi from Kailua foodie Marianne Schultz, but wasn’t prompted to go until Singapore transplant Chunen Choy said she tried their off-menu laksa ($18), which is only served on weekends. And, she added, it’s legit. The dish features wheat noodles in a rich broth topped with shrimp and an array of goodies complemented by the spicy, coconutty soup. If you know, you know.
So Choy and I went to Café Kopi the next weekend to have some, and found other transplanted Singaporeans dining there. And when I posted on my Instagram, Southeast Asians in the know also vouched for its legitimacy.
It turns out owner Jeanne Ng is from Singapore, where she met her husband Ernest Shih. When they got engaged, they decided Hawai‘i would be the best place to live. Shih owns the building that the café is in, and had run a T-shirt business there for many years—the mural of a surfing sumo wrestler on the exterior is a remnant from that time.
The couple had never owned a restaurant before, but had a romanticized notion of the concept. So in November 2020, Ng moved to Hawai‘i, they married in January 2021 and opened Café Kopi at the end of July.
Things fell into place for them—for example, their baker is Barry Yadao. Wait. Barry Yadao, the longtime pastry chef from Hale Koa Hotel? The same Barry Yadao from Halekulani and Prince Waikīkī? Yep, if you know, you know: Yadao has been baking pastries at hotels for decades, and now he’s at Café Kopi.
The café offers French-style pastries daily ($4.25 to $6.50), and by French I mean they’re full of butter. The croissants are fluffy and flaky at first glance and incredibly moist inside. My favorite is the almond croissant, filled with marzipan, but the big seller at the moment is the seasonal pumpkin croissant. There are desserts ($4.50 to $8) like individual cheesecake logs, fruit tarts, coffee jelly and even a vegan, gluten-free chocolate tart. One of the best sellers is bread pudding, which is so rich, it’s like eating warm ice cream.
If you need a meal, the are panini sandwiches ($8.50 to $14.75), salad ($12.75) and Asian dumplings ($8) that Shih makes by hand.
While you will find the usual lineup of coffees and teas, you can also count on the traditional Southeast Asian kopi, and some iced fruit teas (tip: Get the pomelo). And since October is Honolulu Pride Month, the baristas will be featuring rainbow latte art, with 50 cents from every cup donated to Hawai‘i Health & Harm Reduction (formerly The Life Foundation).
But back to the laksa. What makes it so legit? Ng and her fans say it’s using the right spices and coconut cream. In fact, she wants to introduce other Singaporean specialties, like kaya (an egg custard jam using pandanus leaves), but that needs to be homemade, and she can’t find the right pandanus in Hawai‘i yet.
We all can keep watching to see if Café Kopi starts selling kaya by following their Instagram (@cafekopihawaii). And now you know.
(Parking is on the street, or if you know, you can park in the lot behind the surfing sumo wrestler.)