Osso Buco in Waimānalo: Kalapawai Cafe Changes Up a Sleepy Dinner Scene
Find coffee and sandwiches by day and dishes like osso buco and panzanella salad by night at the local chain’s newest eatery.
Restaurants and retail shops have proved transient along the stretch of Kalaniana‘ole Highway that passes through Waimānalo. Roadside stands, a manapua man and huli huli chicken pits pop up on weekends, but if you want dinner from somewhere with a consistent schedule, you’re looking at McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and Subway. That is, until recently: The whole scene expanded when Kalapawai Cafe & Deli started serving dinner.
In the months before Kalapawai applied its signature wainscoting and emerald green to its wooden façade, there was a lot of humming about what would appear on the concrete slab next to Bobby’s, a small convenience store and local relic. In Waimānalo there’s always concern that some large corporate outpost or kayak rental place will come in and change the mellow vibe. In December of 2020 the mystery was solved. The green building became the newest outpost of the homegrown mini-chain that started out in 1932 at Kailua Beach, then grew to a well-loved cafe in Kailua town and six years ago expanded to Kapolei. At the Waimānalo deli and cafe, muffins, wraps and sandwiches, furikake fish bites and poke have been popular breakfast and lunch items for dine-in and takeout. It was while browsing the menu late last year that I realized that there were dinner specials, including—wait for it—lechon kawali.
The first time I just get the lechon ($14), reasoning that if it’s good, I’ll come back and try other stuff. It is delicious. Thick slices of juicy pork belly carry strong porky flavor in the salty fat. These are tossed with crispy pork skin in fish sauce with fresh diced tomato and onion, letting the funky tang bounce off of the savory pork. The inspiration, I learn from Kalapawai chef Jason Iwane, was an early morning trip to Juliez in Waipahu, but the dish didn’t take off at the Kapolei restaurant. I’m so happy it made it to Waimānalo—it’s really good.
The next time I get some things I typically like plus a few wild cards. Furikake fish bites ($15) are made with different kinds of fish. On this day sizable chunks of moist ‘ahi are fried in an extremely light batter and seasoned well, with just enough spicy aioli drizzle to add a kick, though I’m craving some kind of ponzu dipping sauce to play with the creaminess. The panzanella salad ($16) is fresh and bright, full of baby arugula, olive oil baked chunks of bread, and salty pops of capers and kalamata olives. You can add fresh fish blackened on top for extra protein. The Sherwoods burger ($16) is solid, cooked to your preference on a toasted brioche bun with crispy, well rendered bacon and a smokiness that goes well with the avocado and arugula.
A Mai Ka ‘Āina dinner special of Berkshire pork osso bucco ($24) is easily the most unexpected of dishes at the Waimānalo café. It’s beautiful and tasty: Sitting atop creamy polenta, the braised lamb shank falls off the bone while char-grilled asparagus rounds out the plate. The only thing it needs is maybe even more tomato-ey gravy
As someone who is Waimānalo raised and lives here still, I had mixed feelings seeing a dish as bougie as osso buco on a menu in this neighborhood. Even though I’ve come to depend on Kalapawai in Kailua town, I wasn’t sure about having one down the road from my house. But if I was on the fence, I’ve since fallen off—I like this place. The food is good, friendly workers are from the neighborhood, and the deli stocks locally made treats (including a freezer full of ice cream sammies from O‘ahu’s North Shore). Plus, quality dinner close to home? Win.