Photo by Kate Welsh

Say aloha to acai bowls and breakfast banh mi

Kate Welsh
Updated: March 16, 2018

When people talk about Hawaii, they'll mention the crystal clear water, the abundance of palm trees, and the nearly-omnipresent rainbows. They may talk about surfing, or cracking open coconuts, or hiking to the top of a volcano. But no one ever mentions an extremely important reason to visit America's fiftieth state: Hawaii's breakfast game is on point. In the few days I was there recently, I did my darnedest to try all that the Aloha State had to offer when it came to the first meal of the day. Here's what you've got to try when you make it to these beautiful islands.   

Malasadas

Photo by Kate Welsh

Ask anyone in O’ahu where to get the best malasadas and they’ll answer “Leonard’s” with a faraway look in their eyes. The chewy, yeasted doughnuts first made their way to Hawaii thanks to Portuguese immigrants who came to the island to work in the booming agricultural industry. While many of Leonard's malasadas have delicious fillings and toppings of all sorts, I think the way to go is to keep it simple: One cinnamon sugar to go, please.

Taro Bagels

Photo by Kate Welsh

Taro—a purple root vegetable—is everywhere in Hawaii, served up as traditional poi (a sticky mashed taro dish) or transformed into soft serve ice cream. What I didn’t expect to find it in was a shockingly purple bagel from Bogart’s Cafe. And I certainly didn’t expect it to be a really good bagel. I topped mine with sweet cream cheese and a handful of walnuts and raisins for some texture.

Breakfast Plate

Photo by Kate Welsh

When I was chatting with a cabbie in Waikiki about all the breakfast places I was hoping to visit, he laughed, “I never go out! I only have breakfast at home.” So, of course, I had to ask what his typical breakfast was. “Two eggs, Portuguese sausage, and some rice. That’s it.” To get the same simple breakfast that this cabbie loves, swing by He’eia Kea Pier General Store & Deli. Positioned right on the water, you can order your plate, snag a picnic table, and enjoy your coffee with the ocean breeze in your hair.

Breakfast Banh Mi

Photo by Kate Welsh

Wandering through the Kapi’olani Community College Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning, you will likely be overwhelmed with choices. There’s taro soft serve made for Instagram, acai bowls in tiny pineapples, and a bustling takoyaki stand. But when I saw The Pig & the Lady stand, with their bowls of pho and overstuffed sandwiches, I knew that I’d found the right bite. I ordered their breakfast banh mi, which was filled with pickled vegetables, pate, tons of cilantro, and a perfectly crispy fried egg. You'll need extra napkins. 

Congee

Photo by Kate Welsh

Koko Head Cafe is one of the coolest spots on the Island of O’ahu for creative breakfasts. Chef Lee Anne Wong combines international flavors with American breakfast standbys, resulting in dishes like black sesame yuzu muffins, poke omelets, and, my personal favorite, breakfast congee. Made with bacon, Portuguese sausage, heritage ham, cheddar, scallions, and topped with a poached egg and cinnamon-bacon croutons, the porridge is everything that you hope breakfast will be but rarely is.

Loco Moco

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After an early surf session or a sunrise hike up Diamond Head, you’re going to want something hearty. That’s where a loco moco comes in. A burger patty and rice are smothered in rich gravy and topped with a fried egg. To get the full experience, take a trip to Loco Moco Drive In, and dive into their eponymous dish. Just don’t blame me if you need a nap afterwards.

Acai Bowls

Photo by Kate Welsh

It’s perhaps no surprise that in Hawaii, land of so much tropical fruit, acai bowls are everywhere. They’ve got the smoothie bowls down to a science, serving them everywhere from farmer’s market stands to food trucks to old-school surfer hangouts. It was at the latter, a hole-in-the-wall called Da Cove Health Bar, that I had my favorite kind. In a dish called the Hapa bowl, Da Cove serves up a swirl of fuschia pitaya (dragonfruit) and purple acai, and tops it with granola, coconut, fruit, and honey. It was basically Hawaii in a bowl.

Pancakes

Photo by Kate Welsh

If you’re looking for an indulgent breakfast in Honolulu, look no further than Egghead Cafe. There are 10 options for pancakes alone, each more creative than the last. Pay homage to the state with the Hawaiian rendition, where fluffy pancakes are topped with taro, coconut flakes, and sweet coconut sauce, or get the green tea azuki riff, with fried mochi, red bean, ice cream, and a green tea sauce. Of course, you could go classic, too: The chocolate chip pancakes were some of my favorite.

Poke

Photo by Kate Welsh

The Honolulu Fish Auction is a site to behold. Before the sun comes up, rubber-booted representatives from markets and restaurants try to stake their claim on high-quality bigeye tuna, moonfish, and red snapper. It’s a boisterous event, with harried conversation and lots of money on the line. After a tour, you may be wondering where you can try a bite of some of the giant tuna you just saw a fight over. If so, you should head to Nico’s Pier 38 for the freshest poke you’ll ever have. I know, I know: Raw fish first thing in the morning? Trust me. It's probably one of the healthiest ways you could start your day. Choose the fresh ahi shoyu poke, which is hit with a little soy sauce, a pinch of Hawaiian sea salt, and a sprinkle of seaweed to get the purest flavor.

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