Travel

Honolulu Is America's Best Breakfast City

Purple pastries, Spam and Japanese pickles show off Hawaii's morning glory
Best Breakfast in Honolulu, Hawaii
Photo: Koko Head Cafe via Facebook

New York and Los Angeles can keep their brunches (and their long wait times): For the most exciting selection of breakfasts in America, Honolulu wins, hands down.

Many local favorite restaurants are open only for breakfast and lunch, as opposed to the rest of the country, where lunch and dinner dominate (with the occasional brunch for good measure). Perhaps it's the early sunshine that draws people to the morning meal, maybe it's a product of people trying to beat the heat or it's a rush of fisherman and surfers already done with their morning work (or workout).

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Either way, Honolulu is America's best breakfast scene. Here's where to find everything from Japanese soup and Top Chef-designed breakfast congee to Spam and egg bento boxes and ube ensaymadas.

Inaba

For a quick, calm entry into the wild world of Honolulu breakfast, sit down at the blond wood tables at Inaba. Though famous for its soba noodles later in the day, this hallway of a spot opens at 7 a.m., doling out miso soup, udon, pickles, rice, vegetable side dishes and more fish than would show up on a continental breakfast menu. The light, healthful food and serene setting make for a peaceful way to start the day.

Koko Head Cafe

Udon, with cabbage, bacon and a soft-poached egg, shows up on the menu at Top Chef competitor Lee Anne Wong's Koko Head Cafe, a place that demonstrates how much greatness comes from an incredible chef focusing her powers on the morning meal. Her breakfast congee (with cinnamon-bacon croutons) and Elvis's Revenge sandwich (peanut butter, banana tempura, bacon and toasted coconut on a sweet bun), showcase her absurdly good interpretation of Hawaiian ingredients and traditions, her own Chinese heritage, and her fine dining training.

 

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Da Cove Health Bar & Cafe

Far from the chef-driven white-tablecloth world, you'll find Da Cove Health Bar & Cafe. Originally known as Diamond Cove Health Bar, this strip mall spot was opened in 2013 by the late Marcus Marcos. His surfer smoothie joint was among the early acai bowl adopters, helping popularize the Brazilian super fruit now ubiquitous in Hawaii. It hasn't missed a beat since: An order of the Hawaiian Bowl comes with pai'ai (mashed taro) and still tastes good enough to quell any question of how this unsuspecting place helped launch the trend. Need assistance adjusting to the mellow Hawaiian pace of life? Order some ‘awa (kava) to go with—a relaxing herbal beverage traditional to the South Pacific.

Nanding's Bakery

If the purple of the acai and the pai'ai aren't enough for you, continue your brightly colored journey to the ube ensaymadas at Nanding's Bakery. Hawaii's many breakfasts draw from the diverse communities that inhabit the islands, and the best baked goods—like these—arguably come from the Philippines. The soft, spiraled ensaymadas, slathered with butter, sprinkled with sugar and coiled with nearly neon-purple sweet potato might come from a different archipelago, but they fit in perfectly on Hawaii, where radiant breakfasts rule. 

Leonard's Bakery

Just up the street from Nanding's Kapahulu location, Leonard's Bakery turns out an even more famous dough-based breakfast: the malasada. The bakery, founded by the son of Portuguese immigrants, claims to have been the first to start serving the Portuguese pre-Lent tradition in the state. Today, it's hard to make it through a morning without running into the oversize, yeasty and often-stuffed doughnuts, but Leonard's remains among the best on the islands. 

 

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Zippy's

At least as widespread as malasadas, if not more so, is Spam, and it's an essential part of the breakfast bentos at Zippy's. The fast-food restaurants are a part of everyday life in Hawaii: You're more likely to run into a parent dropping kids off at school or construction workers on their way to work at the 24-hour spots than you are any tourists. The chain, with locations peppered all over Oahu, is often the first stop for anyone living off the Islands and returning for a visit. For a true bite of what life in Hawaii tastes like, sit down among the locals and order a breakfast bento.

Naomi Tomky is an award-winning freelance food and travel writer. Follow her edible adventures on Twitter at @Gastrognome and on Instagram at @the_gastrognome.

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