Honolulu, or Hawaii in general, isn’t particularly known for great food compared to the other big cities in the United States. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good eats around, but they’re almost always limited to the same old traditional fare, lacking excitement nor creativity in the dishes. Enter Koko Head Cafe.
Founded and run by Celebrity Chef Lee Anne Wong of Top Chef fame, Koko Head Cafe is a breath of fresh air to the culinary scene in Honolulu. Featuring modern takes on American, Hawaiian classics infused with Korean and Japanese elements.
There are plenty of restaurants in Honolulu that serve up very authentic and solid Korean, Japanese and Chinese cuisine, but Koko Head Cafe was one of the first to have combined them with their American counterparts, and done really well.
The restaurant is roughly a 30 seater, located in the Kaimuki district of Honolulu. Kaimuki is one of the older residential districts in Honolulu, but has surprisingly housed quite a few restaurants in recent times.
Koko Head Cafe is not located on a main road, but rather within an alley off the main road, making it a little challenging to find. Parking spaces are ample from public lots nearby.
Koko Head Cafe is a breakfast and brunch place, that opens only from 7am to 2:30pm daily. At the moment, they do not accept reservations.
When I entered Koko Head Cafe for the first time (I went there twice in two days in a row), I was immediately greeted by a bustling and vibrant atmosphere, which is similarly reflected in the food.
On certain days, Chef Lee Anne Wong would be sitting by the bar working away on her computer, otherwise she would be bustling with her crew in the kitchen.
The decor of the restaurant is bright and modern, kind of like a hipster diner, in a good way. A bar counter offers about 10 seats where patrons can witness the refined processes going on in the kitchen and occasionally strike a conversation with the cute waitresses behind the bar.
If more privacy or seating is required, booths and tables are available, spaced out comfortably in the main dining area. 8/10
Service was always prompt and attentive, even though they were consistently full. A defining characteristic of good service is when you always felt attended to, and never ignored, regardless of busyness. Water glasses were always topped up and we were occasionally, but not too frequently asked how we were doing. 8/10
As I mentioned before, the food at Koko Head Cafe is inspired from different cultures, infused with new American cuisine. The food was so good that I went for brunch a second day in a row during my stay in Honolulu. Here’s what we had.
Dumplings All Day Wong (Daily Special)
5 massive Chinese style dumplings, whose fillings and preparation rotate daily. The ones we had that day were a deep-fried version filled with pork and cabbage.
The presentation was gorgeous, and they were generously filled, although I would have appreciated a better balance of meat vs cabbage, because it was more like 90% meat.
A small spread of Okinawan sweet potato puree served as a sauce and flavour contrast to the dumplings. 8/10
Breakfast Bibimbap ($15)
Chef Lee Anne Wong’s take on the classic Korean Bibimbap — A mixed rice dish with various julienned vegetables and korean bean paste (Gochujang). The traditional version is usually served with warm rice and room-temperature vegetables, and often vegetarian in nature.
So what’s different about the Bibimbap at Koko Head Cafe?
It’s served in a sizzling hot skillet with garlic rice, eventually a crispy crust forms at the bottom of the skillet, resembling Chinese claypot rice. Being a hipster joint, bacon is of course, required, along with Portuguese sausage to include the Hawaiian element, and heritage ham.
The usual julienned carrots, kimchi and beansprouts are added, but what surprised me was the inclusion of water spinach aka morning glory aka Ong Choy (the cantonese dialect name) which locals in Hawaii are used to calling it by.
Ong Choy adds a clean, soft and crunchy texture to the otherwise rich and savoury bites. A beautifully cooked sunny-side up egg tops the dish, which you can choose to enjoy on its own, or mash it together with the rice.
Top quality ingredients in a superbly thought out combination naturally resulted in a mouth-watering dish that resided on almost every other table. Remember the times when Gordon Ramsay told students to be creative and make a dish their own? I think Chef Lee Anne Wong has successfully made Bibimbap her own. 9/10
Koko Moco ($14)
Another take on a classic rice dish. Sound familiar? This is Chef Lee Anne Wong’s take on the Hawaiian classic — Loco Moco.
A Loco Moco is essentially rice, topped with two beef patties, two sunny side up eggs, and most importantly of all, drowned in gravy, lots of gravy. Loco Mocos are actually one of the Hawaiian foods I enjoyed more during my stay in Hawaii because it isn’t dry, unlike many other foods you find in Hawaii. (shrimp plates, macaroni salad with rice, chicken katsu with rice, spam musubi, more fried stuff paired with rice, together with macaroni salad)
The version at Koko Head Cafe was served with beef from Maui Cattle Co., garlic rice, mushroom gravy and sunny side up eggs; They have chosen not to deviate too far from the classic. The extra addition of tempura kimchi provided not only a nice textural crunch, but also great pickled flavours to contrast the very savoury flavours. Also, this was the first time that I’ve encountered kimchi being used in a tempura, and I thought it was ingenious! Bravo.
That said, since this dish was leaning closer to safe/conservative territories, I would have liked if the beef could be done to various doneness, to not only add more detail to the dish, but also showcase the quality of the beef better. (Ours was well done by default) 8.5/10
Cornflakes French Toast ($14)
We also tried the cornflakes french toast, which came highly recommended by many people.
Two slices of bread, sandwiched, halved and egg-washed before coated with cornflakes and deep-fried. Two slices of maple syrup-glazed bacon topped the french toasts alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream following a drizzle of more maple syrup. **Heavy Breathing**
The crust was light and crispy, the inside was soft and airy. While hipsters would likely disagree, I felt the bacon was un-necessary (WHAT DO YOU MEAN BACON IS UN-NECESSARY?!). The reason was because I saw this more as a dessert, and the ice cream served its duty well at that. Hot vs cold, crispy vs velvety soft. Beautiful. 9/10
On paper, this was a burger made of peanut butter, banana tempura, ‘billionaire’s bacon’, local honey and toasted coconut. Sounded like a catastrophe; Something along the lines of a deep-fried snickers bar. When it arrived, it looked a lot milder, quite pretty in fact, with the yellow tones and peanut butter oozing out.
Somehow, peanut butter and banana worked together. My brother ordered this, and even him, being a clean and healthy eating enthusiast enjoyed this tremendously. 8/10
Don Buri Chen ($16)
On another day, we tried the Don Buri Chen in place of the Bibimbap. It was a take on the Japanese dons (rice bowls), and this version was topped with miso smoked pork, five spice pork belly, french-style scrambled eggs, pickles and sushi rice. A piece of chicharron (fried pork skin) was also included.
Having had the insanely good bibimbap, I had high expectations for this bowl. Whilst the dish looked very pretty, expectations fell short. This was one of those dishes I mentioned earlier in Hawaii, that were rather dry with rice. Unlike the bibimbap, there was no sauce or egg yolk to bind and lubricate the components together. I guess that might have been the purpose of the french-style scrambled eggs, which is wetter than the usual scrambled eggs, but I felt it wasn’t flavourful enough to act as a sauce.
The various meats tasted good on their own, and were a pleasant change from the usual sukiyaki beef slices and/or chicken you find on Donburis.
The piece of awkwardly sized (neither big nor small) chicharron was very uninspiring, and tasted dense and chewy instead of light and crispy.
All in all, I felt this dish could be improved upon — Make the chicharron crispy like a cracker and add some type of sauce/gravy to the rice. 7/10
Ohayou Eggs ($15)
Baked eggs with heritage ham, local mushrooms, parmesan dashi cream and bonito flakes.
Funnily, in contrast to the previous dish which lacked saucing, this entire dish was a sauce.
I’ve had many permutations of baked eggs before, hence I had a mental image of what to expect when I chose this dish. Unfortunately, what was served had nothing in resemblance to any form of eggs whatsoever. It was very watery, like a clam chowder soup. Problem was, it was also very cheesey and salty, making it impossible to drink on it’s own.
A few slices of bread were provided, i assume to dip into the mixture, which was fine, but unfortunately, it was totally not how I had expected to eat this dish.
So what had I expected, you ask?
Semi-solid eggs, along with the mushrooms and ham sprinkled over the top and then baked with a layer of the parmesan cream sauce, which forms a cheesey caramelized crust at the top like a gratin/pizza. The nori and bonito is then sprinkled on top and adds additional umami. Most importantly of all, it needs to be seasoned enough to be able to eat on its own. The dish does get points for presentation, earning it a generous 5/10
Side of Hashbrown
I’m a big fan of hashbrowns, and always order it if available on breakfast menus. Naturally, I had to try the ones at Koko Head Cafe.
The hashbrown came in a single one inch thick triangular piece, deep-fried to a searing crisp. The inside was fully cooked through and well seasoned. All in all, very nicely executed. 8.5/10