The last time I had taiyaki was at Waipahu's Yoloha Café. As far as I knew, Yoloha was the only place on Oahu that sold this snack of a fish-shaped waffle filled with a swirl of soft-serve. It's a popular street food in Japan that trended on the U.S. dessert scene at spots like Taiyaki NYC or L.A.’s SomiSomi. So my sweets-loving heart sank a little when Yoloha closed last summer.
Now, thanks to newly opened Kokoro Café, taiyaki soft serve is back!
Kokoro Café is husband-and-wife team Gil and Lisa Ann Shin’s first venture. They decided on the name kokoro because of its Japanese meaning, “heart.”
“From our heart to yours, we want to put a smile on your face through our desserts,” Gil Shin says. “We want to give customers that happiness we get when we eat dessert.”
The menu consists of three small and highly Instagrammable desserts. Each has a local twist: the Dole Whip float ($7) is a frozen POG slush topped with a pineapple, while the Shaka-Boom ($6.50) taiyaki can be filled with coconut haupia, chocolate cream or sweet red bean before it's topped with soft serve.
Sample portions at the grand opening media event, shown here in the photos, were roughly one-third of regular serving sizes.
Here’s where things get fun. Ice cream flavors include pineapple Dole Whip, creamy coconut, super acai berry and classic vanilla bean. Filling choices are sweet red bean, coconut haupia and chocolate cream. You get two toppings — cereal, fresh fruit, sprinkles, cookie bites or a variety of sauces — and a strawberry or pineapple skewer to top it off.
I'm intrigued by Kokoro’s twist on taiyaki. It's not thin or crepellike, nor is it bready and dense. It's surprinsingly similar to a waffle cone (crispy and crunchy, but not overly sweet), but its form and airiness remind me of a classic taiyaki. The soft serve melts quickly in this heat wave, but its velvety, luscious texture makes it indulgent. I love the smooth, fragrant vanilla bean; Gil says acai berry is his favorite. Kokoro doesn't water down its acai, so you’ll get that refreshing sweet-tartness.
The sample sizes were about one third of a regular Mochi pop. Flavors include KOKO chocolate (rich chocolate drizzle, Oreo bites and white chocolate), Sand Castle (cinnamon sugar, Cinnamon Toast Crunch bites, white chocolate), Paradise Dreams (haupia cream, coconut flakes and passion fruit sauce) and Over the Rainbow (white chocolate, Fruity Pebbles and rainbow sprinkles). You can also order the original flavor ($2.50) or create your own.
The mochi waffle is gloriously chewy without being thick, so you don't have to worry about filling up on breadiness. KOKO chocolate is sticky and very sweet, but since I love chocolate, I don’t mind. Sand Castle is your best bet if you want something that isn't super sweet.
If you want something cold and refreshing, go for the Dole Whip floats. Pineapple chunks give this a tropical island vibe, and the POG flavor will take you back to childhood days of playing outdoors in the summer.
Of the three desserts, the Shaka-Boom was my favorite. I love soft serve, and this is easily the most kawaii treat on the menu. Your biggest challenge, besides just picking one dessert, will most likely be the same as mine if you're there on a hot day: trying to get an IG-worthy photo before your soft serve melts.
Royal Hawaiian Center – Pa‘ina Lanai Food Court (Building B, Level 2)
2201 Kalakaua Ave.
Daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Free validated parking for first hour with minimum $10 purchase, $2 per hour for the next two hours