Your O‘ahu Neighborhood Guide: Kamehameha Highway in Wahiawā
Old meets new in this unique O‘ahu neighborhood off the beaten path.
Cindy and Tom Bauer of Surfing the Nations have spent the past decade revitalizing this stretch of Kamehameha Highway.
A few decades ago, the few blocks of Kamehameha Highway that intersected the loop of Ohai Street in Wahiawā were infamous. Back then, they served as a back road to an unsavory assortment of seedy businesses. Today, that stretch of highway is a space of revival, a burgeoning center for hip, locally owned businesses and food worth going out of your way for—all with a sense of small-town community that can’t be manufactured.
A volunteer barista serves fresh brew at Surfers Coffee Bar.
Tom Bauer sits in a trendy bohemian coffee shop in the same building that he says used to house a brothel as young volunteer baristas whip up chai lattes. Bauer and his wife, Cindy, head Surfing the Nations (44 Ohai St.), a nonprofit that seeks to inspire individuals to community service through surf culture. “We use surfing as our platform to give back,” he says. A decade ago the Bauers bought the building and spent years transforming their little slice of the neighborhood. “Ten years ago, we lived next to the porn shop,” he says, remembering a time when he could stand on his balcony and watch patrons ring a bell for entry at the store’s discreet back door.
Now, there’s a Surfing the Nations community center, pantry and showers for the area’s homeless people. There are recreation and meeting spaces. And there’s also a whole new community forming, of rooming volunteers (the nonprofit has a few apartment buildings on Ohai Street) and small, local shops and restaurants that have transformed the place from an area to avoid to a destination.
Surfers Coffee Bar and clothing boutique Niu bring new life and younger patrons to this part of town.
Surfing the Nations’ legacy in Wahiawā all started with Surfers Coffee Bar (63 S. Kamehameha Highway). Walk in off the street and you’ll find an eclectic space filled with a mishmash of furniture (“All donated,” says Bauer) and a gallerylike vibe, thanks to old-school Hawai‘i- and surf-related posters and décor from Bauer’s own collection. “A lot of people have surf memorabilia but they don’t have anywhere to show it,” he says. “So that’s the blessing for me.”
Inside, volunteers and Surfing the Nations interns work busily on laptops at sunny window tables and young military men nestle in easy chairs sipping their coffee. At the counter, the affable barista hands a bathroom key to a man and comments cheerily on his haircut. They’re serving acai bowls, mochi waffles and the full spectrum of coffee and tea—try the iced Wahiawā mocha, a sweet blend of white chocolate and pineapple—but don’t feel pressured to buy something, says Bauer. You can bring your own food, rearrange chairs for meetings, or just hang out to use the wi-fi, either in the roomy main bar or at café tables set under bistro lights in the outside corridor.
A wide assortment of knickknacks, clothes and other items fill The Vintage Hawai‘i.
Over at The Vintage Hawai‘i (43 S. Kamehameha Highway), Surfing the Nations’ other form of retail income, is a hodgepodge of treasures. Unusual furniture and old-school tropical décor pack the small shop, with charming, quirky dishes, trinkets and tokens from yore piled high throughout: a kids’ Hawaiian songbook, complete with accompanying guitar chords; a retro metal toy plane; delicate glassware with etched bamboo engravings. Hundreds of little pieces, with hundreds of stories of the homes and lives they’ve been a part of. “People donate to us, and I buy at swap meets,” says Bauer, who’s always collected antiques, and is now constantly scouring sales and picking up donations to add to the shop. “All the profits in here go back into the development of the property,” he says. “One hundred percent!” shouts one of the shopworkers from the back.
The Bauers’ local, vibrant tenants add to the block’s appeal. When Sarah Scoville and Olivia Turner opened Niu (57 S. Kamehameha Highway) four years ago, shopping options in the neighborhood were limited to places that weren’t quite what young, stylish women like them were looking for, such as Duke’s Clothing just up California Avenue. (“The kind of place your grandma shops,” says Scoville with a smile.) Turner stocks Niu with the trendy swimwear brands and boho ensembles that younger crowds flock to at Instagram-darling boutiques on the North Shore. But Niu’s prices in quieter, less-busy Wahiawā, says Scoville, are often lower. Plus, you’re apt to discover something unique, such as art and cards from hometown artist Ashley Kaase (who also hosts workshops at the shop).
General Manager Kaulu Larson behind the counter at Maui Mike’s, which specializes in rotisserie chicken.
Mike Royce has been a part of the community for 14 years—and has seen a lot of changes. When he chose the spot for Maui Mike’s Fire-Roasted Chicken (96 S. Kamehameha Highway) in 2005 (he now has a second location in Kailua), “many people warned us that our business would fail,” he says. But, “we saw that it had a lot of potential. Back then, Wahiawā was considered a run-down town. We thought that it was destined to grow and improve because it’s the gateway to the North Shore and has the added benefit of a large military presence. … We love Wahiawā … [and] the town evolved into the lovely, yet busy, historic town it is known as today.”
Now, Maui Mike’s Fire-Roasted Chicken is an icon on the busy street, with its window of painted flames and a steady glut of lunchgoers keeping workers busy tossing order tickets along and pulling chickens out of the industrial-sized rotisserie in the back. Some of the workers have been with the restaurant for more than a decade, while the patrons are mostly made up of die-hard military fans and tourists stopping by on their way to the North Shore, says Royce. “Some guests come in so frequently that our crew knows them by name. Many of our military regulars have stayed in touch with us even after they’ve left Hawai‘i. We even received a postcard from one of our military guests while he was stationed in Iraq.”
The colorful walls of El Palenque jazz up the neighborhood.
All in the Family
The small businesses give the town its unique flavor. One of Bauer’s favorites? Mexican restaurant El Palenque (177 S. Kamehameha Highway), just down the street. The eatery is tiny, but it’s got some big personality: a vibrant yellow and blue interior, a collage of photos of the restaurant over the years, charmingly illustrated lotería tickets, and a painting of Emiliano Zapata on the wall. “For small businesses it’s hard,” says owner Erica Duarte, “but 23 years, so … we’re doing something right.”
El Palenque owner Erica Duarte says the community is lucky to have a variety of restaurants in this once sparse area.
Diners can see into the kitchen, where you’re apt to spot Duarte’s mother whipping up the restaurant’s famous menudo (tripe stew), a special on Saturdays and Sundays. “Definitely a big seller,” says Duarte, a personable, welcoming woman who speaks proudly of what her family has built together over the past couple of decades. When her parents started the restaurant, they had nothing. “We were actually having a hard time and we didn’t have anywhere to stay. We were at a bus stop and a military family helped us on base. My dad had money from construction, so he said, ‘Let’s just open a little spot.’” El Palenque is still a family affair: Her cousin and brother work there, and they all take turns traveling to Mexico to visit relatives and stock up on herbs.
El Palenque’s eclectic décor includes illustrated lotería tickets on the tables.
“We just love it here,” says Duarte. Her sister opened another restaurant down the road, they all live in town, and all their kids go to nearby schools. Duarte often grabs lunch at Maui Mike’s across the street, and mentions her admiration for its next-door neighbor, New Life Body of Christ Church (74 S. Kamehameha Highway). “I love that every year for Christmas they give out to the community. They give gifts. [People] line up for hours, waiting, and they give kids new bikes, they give furniture. They help out the community a lot.”
Uber Factory owner Andy Dalan with his famous purple tarts.
Andy Dalan is a comparative newbie to the Wahiawā scene. He opened Uber Factory (71 S. Kamehameha Highway) three years ago. It’s a purple-painted, purple-curtained hole-in-the-wall, located down a small alley just around the corner from Surfers Coffee Bar, known for luscious ube tarts with big social media appeal. “It is a quiet neighborhood,” he says. “I still see that the community has a small parade during Christmas. The church does community service and they feed the homeless. I see signs about community events, like the farmers market.”
Dalan worked on the North Shore when he first launched the bakery, so Wahiawā was a location that made sense—closer to town, easier for tourists and locals to stop in for treats, reasonable rent—and his dedicated following has proved more than willing to take a trip off the radar to score some of his concoctions. “We have customers who frequent Las Vegas and they often stop by my shop to pick up tarts to bring to the Mainland. We also have customers who order for parties and such, or for their families and friends,” says Dalan.
Parking and Traffic
The Surfing the Nations building has a lot out back, accessible from Ohai Street, with about a dozen stalls. Metered street parking is also available.
The Bottom Line
Even if you didn’t see this stretch of Kamehameha Highway 10 years ago—before Walgreens swept in—and can’t marvel at the changes, there’s still a lot to stop for on the block: good local food and unique shopping experiences with a small-town feel.