Far from the crowds of tourists in Waikīkī or the bustle of downtown Honolulu, the neighborhood of Kaimukī is a charming, walkable mix of old-fashioned stores and some of the city’s hippest restaurants. Tucked into a side street, in an off-white building with blue trim and cheery white-and-yellow-striped awning giving shade to the benches that handle frequent overflow crowds, Koko Head Cafe is the neighborhood's cheerful morning destination.
Think of Koko Head Cafe, which serves one brunch menu daily from 7 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon, as the Sqirl of Honolulu. Like the daytime-only destination in Los Angeles, Koko Head is loved by locals, chefs hype it, and out-of-towners can use it to experience an idealized Honolulu lifestyle. The restaurant delivers on so many of the city's promises: the fresh fish from nearby waters, the mashup of culinary traditions happening on the plates, and the warm, friendly energy captured by the photogenic chalkboard menu, bedecked with a rainbow sherbert-colored "Aloha."
The chef and co-owner, Lee Anne Wong, who moved to Honolulu in 2013, first made a name for herself on the first season of Top Chef. She seems to have hit her stride in her adopted home, which has energized her cooking. "So I moved here from New York, and suddenly, I'm no longer the minority. We're on an island full of Asians," she told me with a smile, sitting at the Koko Head bar one afternoon as service was winding down.
After arriving in Honolulu, Wong saw an opportunity in the city's brunch scene, especially when compared to the tourism-driven options. "Brunch to me is one of those meals that everybody here eats, but it's always kind of overlooked, whether you're eating at [touristy spots like] a hotel buffet or somewhere in Waikīkī. I wanted to do something different; something fun and local."
When I arrived for a weekday brunch around 11:30 a.m, the restaurant was bustling, but we were able to get a booth without a wait. The crowd, Wong says, is a healthy mix of locals and tourists — about 70 percent local at any given moment, she thinks. From the tiny kitchen, servers carry out plates of pancakes, egg sandwiches, and dumplings. The room seems, for lack of a better word, happy.
You'll want to focus your attention on the skillet section of Koko Head's menu. Rice is a staple at every meal in Hawai‘i, including at breakfast, and Wong puts her own spin on local classics. The breakfast bibimbap, a top seller, is an ode to her favorite early morning order in New York's Koreatown, and she serves it in a cast-iron skillet, using a familiar brunch cliche to mimic the iron bowl bibimbap usually arrives in. Her riff on the breakfast of fish and eggs uses whatever local fish she's working with that day (when I tried it, it was delicate opah), marinated in sweet miso and served over skillet-crisped rice with a portion of perfectly creamy scrambled eggs.
Wong knows how to wring every ounce of expression from a rice breakfast. The congee, a soulful rendition of the classic Chinese rice porridge and another Koko Head standby, veers Hawai‘i melting pot, with bacon, cheddar cheese, scallions, Portuguese sausage, a soft egg, and cinnamony croutons; the end result is a maximalist, deeply satisfying bowl of contrasting textures and flavors. And paired with a liliko‘i juice or a nicely flaky poi biscuit, it feels absolutely of its place in Honolulu.
The menu hasn't changed much since opening, according to Wong. There are specials, of course, but mostly, she's happy about that. "The minute I tried to take one thing off that wasn't performing well, somebody cried about it," she said. This she sees as more a positive than a negative for a restaurant that wants to be an enduring part of its community. "We've become a part of daily life," she said.
Hillary Dixler Canavan is a senior editor at Eater.
All photos by Hillary Dixler Canavan