Café Kalawe isn’t super new. The mom-and-pop diner opened in January, but when fellow Frolicker Thomas Obungen and I dropped by to scope it out a month later, the Café was closed for a catering event. Then it started opening an hour earlier, at 8 a.m. instead of 9, meaning now I can stop by for an early breakfast before work.
That's good, because the place is so cozy that weekend brunch can mean a wait. It's worth it, though. Hidden inside a Kaneohe office building, Cafe Kalawe is that gem of a local-style diner, with hot breakfasts, huge plate lunches, saimin and barbecue sticks and desserts.
Before you go in, check out the daily specials posted on the chalkboard outside.
Score! I call ahead and find out it's peanut butter brownie day. No harm in dessert first (thing in the morning), right? Desserts range from cherry cobblers to pistachio cakes.
This decadent, fudgy $2 brownie is as sinfully delicious as it sounds. An entire peanut butter OREO cookie is at the center of a freshly baked brownie that’s in the shape of a cupcake. It takes all of my self-control to refrain from ordering five more.
If you’re coming on the weekend, go early or plan to get takeout. This Café has only five tables inside. Owner Nani Kalawe wanted a cozy space with a neighborhood feel reminiscent of old-Hawaii diners, complete with home-cooked meals like you’d find at your favorite aunty’s hale. Kalawe’s six daughters and eight granddaughters all help out, so you’re bound to see several of them during your visit.
The simple menu doesn’t mean narrowing down your order is easy. Breakfast is served from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but the lunch and dinner menu’s available all day. So if you want shoyu chicken, teri beef or grilled pork chops first thing in the a.m., you’re in the right place.
You can’t go wrong with any of the three loco mocos on the breakfast menu, but the Kapoho moco ($9.50) is a favorite because of its fresh corned beef hash patties. You won’t find any slimy canned stuff here. This, my friends, is what corned beef hash should be — shredded beef that's fresh, juicy, flavorful and not overly salty. The housemade gravy is divine.
You have the option to upgrade to one of the fried rices for a slight fee. Choose from Kahuwai (plain), kim chee or lup cheong, but really, all are winnahs. The Kahuwai fried rice ($2.25 more) is Kalawe’s housemade recipe with Spam, ham, bacon, Portuguese sausage, scrambled eggs and green and white onions.
If you want to kick off your day with a meaty meal, this is the way to go. Speaking of meat, the Ko’olaupoko breakfast sandwich ($4.95) is what Kalawe describes as "egg McMuffin on steroids," but thick, billowy Punaluu Bake Shop sweet bread makes this one better.
The sandwich looks small, but it’s definitely filling. The sweet bread is grilled perfectly, and melted cheese and crispy bacon add the right amount of saltiness. If you grew up with mom slathering butter on hot, toasted Hawaiian sweet bread for you in the morning, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
The Café’s housemade hamburger steak is a classic. Even smothered in tasty brown gravy, its flavor comes through.
Whatever you get, be sure to add a BBQ stick ($2.50) or yakitori stick ($2.75) on the side. I usually gravitate toward chicken (the yakitori is basted with teriyaki sauce), but since the barbecue sauce is supposedly to die for, I opt for beef. I’m so glad I do. The beef is tender, every surface of meat coated with sticky, slightly sweet, subtly smoky and finger-lickin’ yummy sauce. Eating off the skewer is always half the fun.
The big question after my weekday breakfast is how am I supposed to be productive? I'd better get a cup of coffee to go.
46-005 Kawa St.
Tues-Fri 8 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-8 p.m.
Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-2 p.m.