In recent weeks, I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter about Koko Head Cafe through my various social media channels. My first hint of this new cafe came when John Garcia, of NonStop Honolulu fame, posted a sneak-peak photo of the identity and branding design for the new restaurant. Little did I know, Koko Head Cafe’s head chef, Lee Anne Wong, was a contestant on the first season of Bravo’s popular food competition show, Top Chef (I’m more of a Next Food Network Star kind of guy). Wong finished fourth in the competition, with Harold Dieterle winning it all. While the New York born Dieterle went on to open a few restaurants following his win, including the acclaimed The Marrow in New York City, Wong would plant new roots in Hawaii.
The Koko Head Cafe sits in the space formerly occupied by Kaimuki staple, 12th Avenue Grill. Owner Kevin Hanney describes his restaurant as a gourmet breakfast spot, and with Wong as head chef, he definitely has the credentials to back that statement up. The menu is a creative food adventure, with signature items like the Kim Chee Bacon Cheddar Scone, Coffee and Doughnuts, Elvis’s Revenge, and Dumplings All Day Wong.
Word about this new Kaimuki joint must be spreading. The wait was about 30 minutes long, despite the quiet soft opening having just occurred a few days earlier. It’s a good thing that Gecko Books & Comics is next door. After spending a few dollars at our local comic book shop, we stood outside of Koko Head Cafe with the rest of the hungry crowd. When my name was finally called, we were offered a seat at the bar. Sure, why not. The bonus being that we would get a great view of Chef Wong in her element. Yes, a notable head chef actually working the kitchen. Who would have thought?
It was noon and the restaurant was full to capacity. Wong was working hard in the trenches, yelling out orders to her wait staff and cooks. It was like Hell’s Kitchen, but real. At one point, one of the cooks pushed a plate of french toast into another plate, which ultimately caused a fresh dish of Breakfast Bibimbap to go crashing into the floor. Wong quickly grabbed a broom and cleaned up the mess, while scolding the cooks and yelling at her dish washers to come and help her. A few moment’s later, Wong delivered some goodies, on the house, to a patron that had been waiting a while for his dish. She profusely apologized for the wait, and offered him a frosted black sesame yuzu muffin ($4). One thing is for sure, Chef Lee Anne Wong is a passionate cook, and is serious about her craft. I would not dare get in her way while she is hard at work in the kitchen.
For brunch, I had the Ohayou Eggs ($15). The server promised that I was in for a treat with the Ohayou Eggs, claiming that it was “super good.” He even added an eye wink and a head nod. And he was right, it was great. The Ohayou Eggs is rich and creamy indulgence. The dish comes served in a sizzling hot pan, and features two baked eggs, heritage ham, local mushrooms, parmesan-dashi mornay sauce, and bonito flakes. You also get a side of toast. If you’re looking for something original off of the menu, that is not your typical breakfast fare, this is it. Try the Ohayou Eggs, it’s delicious. Pro tip: use the toast to clean the sauce off the plate.
“In my excitement in seeing Chef Lee Anne Wong put the finishing touches on dishes, I could not focus on what to order off the menu. I teeter-tottered between ordering something savory (Don Buri Chen) and something sweet (Cornflake French Toast). However, when I saw my neighbor’s food placed in front of him, I spontaneously told the server that I wanted a Koko Moco ($14), too. Besides, he can attest to how I usually gravitate to ordering a loco moco whenever it is listed on a menu.
The Koko Moco is the chef’s take on an island favorite, the loco moco. Presented in a skillet was a bed of garlic rice, topped with a Maui Cattle Company beef patty, mushroom gravy, sunny side up egg, and tempura kimchi. I would have actually liked more gravy and another egg on there! It was very filling, nonetheless. I also thought the tempura kimchi was a nice addition to the dish, as a garnish and as a textural contrast.
We also wanted to try their dumplings of the day, a Korean fried chicken version. However, we were told that hey had just run out of it. Needless to say, we’ll definitely want to try one of her dumpling dishes. After all, she’s the one with the book, Dumplings All Day Wong: A Cookbook of Asian Delights From a Top Chef, coming out later this year.”
For dessert, yes, for dessert, we shared two items: Coffee and Doughnuts ($8), and the banana kaffir lime bread ($4). I’m a sucker for good banana bread, so I just had to try this cafe’s version. The bread was tasty, but it did suffer from lackluster plating. And at four bucks a slice, I probably won’t be ordering it again. The Coffee and Doughnuts, on the other hand, were a pleasant surprise. They reminded me a bit of andagi (Okinawan donuts). The doughnut holes are a bit dense, however, they do go well with the Kona coffee creme anglaise.
In terms of ambiance, I can only review what it was like sitting at the bar, which, I have to assume is very different from the experience one would have at one of the tables or booths. If you want to see a former Top Chef contestant in action, then the bar is the place to be. Sit at the bar and see Chef Lee Anne Wong doing what she does best. The negative is that because it is an open kitchen, you start to feel the tension that builds up in a working kitchen. Great for fans of Cutthroat Kitchen, not so great for those looking for a relaxing Sunday brunch. The tension is real, folks.
Service was okay, not great. I had asked if they served Plantation Iced Tea, and they said yes. However, what they brought me was not a Plantation Iced Tea, it was a “Tropical” Flavored Iced Tea, minus the pineapple juice. Also, it did take a while before we were given our bill. There was a lot of waiting around during our first experience at Koko Head Cafe (30 minutes to get in, 20 minutes for our food, 15 minutes for our bill). I’m sure, though, that the staff will work out these kinks. As the restaurant’s popularity grows, there may not be much that they can do about the wait time for a table, but, they could definitely improve on food delivery time and developing a more attentive wait staff. That said, Chef Wong personally gave us a take home treat, a black sesame yuzu muffin, as a thank you for waiting. This was a very nice gesture for her to do, and the perfect way to end our first experience at Koko Head Cafe. There are a few dishes on the menu that I would definitely like to try, so, Chef Wong, we’ll be back, and we hope to see you in the kitchen once again.
Food Rating: 3.75/5
Ambiance Rating: 3.75/5
Service Rating: 3.25/5
Koko Head Cafe
1145 C 12th Ave
Honolulu, HI 96816