From gelato to jin dui, delicious desserts and their makers are bringing a sugar buzz to this modest Honolulu neighborhood.
Text by Anna Harmon | Images by Jonas Maon
Food is not only the way to your lover’s heart–it’s also the way to the heart of cultures and a destinations. In Hawai‘i, the incredible array of culinary delights bring locals and visitors alike to a tizzy (just ask anyone their favorite shave ice spot. Debate, ensue). The neighborhood of Kaimuki encapsulates such a tizzy, with new restaurants and dessert spots popping up regularly. Here, on a calf-high stone that rests in a grassy patch abutting 12th Avenue and a parking lot entrance, there is a worn metal plaque with raised lettering that is half-oxidized. It reads: “KA-IMU-KI means the place of the ti leaf ovens. Legend tells us menehune built the ovens, which later were used by the Polynesians for cooking and making beverages.” Although the tī plant is most commonly used to steam laulau, bundles of meat or fish wrapped in the plant’s leaves, it has served other purposes over the centuries. Stories recount ancient Hawaiians baking its root into a gooey confection with a flavor similar to molasses candy.
Kaimuki has a rich and diverse history, including eras when it was home to a signaling station and ostriches kept by King Kalakaua’s court physician. Here, more than a dozen locations serve up sumptuous sweet treats; from the moment you wake up until you eat your last bite, you can find whatever you crave. To start, directly across the street from the plaque is Koko Head Café. Owned by chef Leanne Wong of Top Chef fame, this bustling spot has made its name in large part for its cornflake-crusted French toast served with vanilla ice cream and candied bacon, a guaranteed sugar buzz.
Packed into just one block of 12th Avenue, between Waialae and Harding. are four locations wholly on sweet treats and baked goods, each with their own flavors and flair:
January 29 marks 25 years of cheesecake-making for Otto, a soft-spoken savant with a taste for richly colored décor. The exterior of his cheesecake shop, Otto Cake, is painted a fire-engine red, and a heavy diamond-patterned fabric hangs behind the register and the display case that holds a variety of velvety cheesecakes, which he proudly makes by hand. “No machines are involved. Only one is made at a time,” explains Otto, who also happens to be a punk-rock musician who doesn’t give out his last name or age, and who chose to be homeless for a year and nine months to save up the money to open his first storefront. He relocated Otto Cake to Kaimukī in 2013 after four years in Chinatown, where his little shop made a big name for itself. Over his decades of cheesecake exploration, Otto has concocted about 250 recipes, and he continues to find inspirations in his favorite flavors, from eggnog (he makes his own) to acai bowls. (Cash only.)
Located at 1127 12th Ave.
Sconees is a modest shop located behind a faded orange and brown “Sconees Bakery” window decal. The bakery’s real giveaway, however, is the smell of baked goods wafting in front of the shop early in the morning and late at night. Owner Gary Chong bought the bakery in 2001 from the original owner, who had been a head baker at Liberty House. While the shop is known for its scones, which are still made with the original recipe from the previous owner, a tasty alternative to this staple is the liliko‘i bar. Chong came up with this sugar-powdered treat as a local spin on the lemon bar (also an option, along with blueberry and guava bars), and the liliko‘i brings a welcome tang to the sweet, flaky pastry. (Cash only.)
Located at 1117 12th Ave.
When Chocolate + Vanilla Bakery owner Jill Yamashita decided to attend pastry school at the Western Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts) in Oregon in 2009, her mom said jokingly, “But you don’t even know how to turn on a mixer!” However, she did have a trick up her sleeve: Yamashita comes from generations of family in the food industry. Her great-grandparents owned Torii’s Lunch Room, where the Ke‘eaumoku Walmart is now, and her mom has a catering business. After graduating, Yamashita took an externship at the Grand Wailea on Maui, which eventually turned into a full-time position at the hotel. But, wanting to define her own destiny, she came back to O‘ahu and opened Chocolate + Vanilla Bakery in April 2014. Yamashita’s personal favorite is her panna cotta crème brulee, but other classics, from cupcakes to brownies to macarons with just the right amount of sweetness, are also available.
Located at 1115 12th Ave.
Via Gelato holds down the ‘ewa side of 12th Avenue with a delightfully spacious and charming shop featuring a wide array of seating and a window in the back where visitors can see gelato being made. “I wanted to make something at a price point everyone can afford, something already familiar to people, that allows me to put my own twist using local flavors as inspiration,” says owner Melissa Bow. Shortly after moving home from New York City, she began selling gelato out of a charmingly painted truck that became the beacon of creamy cold treats garnering both foodie acclaim and local favor. Today, a crowd piles in until the lights go out at 10 p.m. Flavors change daily, are inspired by Hawai‘i (black sesame and kulolo, for example), and include seasonal offerings like pumpkin crunch or mango. Bow’s favorite flavor to make? Caramel, she says. “It’s pretty fascinating that just cooking sugar down to bronze makes it taste totally different.”
Located at 1142 12th Ave.
Venturing beyond this block into larger Kaimuki promises many more sweet finds. On Wai‘alae Avenue, there is Café Laufer, with traditional French pastries like fruit tarts and a chocolate pyramid. At Hung Won Restaurant, the jin dui is a hit; at Leahi Health Beverages, those avoiding refined sugars will be delighted with smoothies such as the “Poi Boy,” a blend of kambucha, taro, coconut milk, banana, pineapple, and honey. A couple blocks mauka (towards the mountains) on 10th Avenue is Your Kitchen, a small mom-and-pop shop located beneath a worn shave ice-shaped sign painted with primary colors. Here, you can get one of several delicious bento options alongside melt-in-your-mouth Japanese-style shave ice with homemade ice cream (green tea or vanilla).