We wrote about the famous Liliha Bakery here at the HAT Blog a decade ago. We’ve been back many times since, and, frankly, nothing has changed (it opened in 1950). That is a wonderful thing. Much has been written over the years about the venerable old diner, many fawning and cutesy local news segments produced celebrating the legendary Liliha Bakery Coco Puff. Its cakes, pastries, and pies are practically compulsory for large family and work gatherings.
We found ourselves there recently and were charmed anew by its timeless appeal. But on this occasion, something was different. It wasn’t the place itself, or the aunties at the counter pouring coffee and shuttling plates, or the man at the grill slinging hash. It wasn’t the diners, either, huddled over their breakfasts and plate lunches and meatloaves and burgers. It was that my wife had been fasting for 36 hours and she was ravenous.
“We can go anywhere,” I had offered. “Get you a big old steak or…”
She seemed as certain as the tides. I felt a rush of pride. I wondered how many people exist on Earth who grew up in a small western Pennsylvania town and who would instinctively break a tortuous fast with greasy spoon fare from a tiny diner in Kalihi. I can count exactly one. At any rate, Liliha Bakery is just a couple of blocks around the corner from our flat and it’s always our best bet for the business of breakfast.
All of the magazine articles and affectionate local news segments over 70 years (and yes, blogs, too) have grown Liliha Bakery’s brand and its standing in the community. A second location was opened in 2014 along industrial Nimitz Highway. There are now five Oahu locations, including one in Waikiki’s bustling International Marketplace. The menus at the not-Liliha locations are more varied, and they offer not-diner options like a sumptuous prime rib and lobster tail. Of course, all of the local favorites are on offer, too.
I’ve only ever been to the original Liliha Street location. I’ve never ordered anything other than breakfast. My wife, whose hunger had her nearly speaking in tongues, brought me to the brink of tears when she ordered two eggs, runny, with Portuguese sausage and house fried rice. She tucked into it wordlessly, not even bothering with the savory grilled buns on the side.
“That’s my local girl!” I chided. She looked at me as though I had just coughed up a hairball. She makes a mean slow cooker kalua pig and an equally impressive shoyu chicken. After more than 20 years as an Oahu resident, my wife knows her way around a local food menu. Better than me, probably, and I grew up here. My wife knew what she would order before we parked the car.
“Local food” in Hawaii means many things. The simple grilled cheese sandwich I ordered, I would argue, certainly counts as local food. You find local food where locals eat. Plate lunch, dim sum, sushi, vegan…whatever. It’s all local food if people that live and work here eat it.
Liliha Bakery is genuine. There can be only one original location, but its brand of local food has expanded to include new locations and menu items. Things change. Liliha Bakery in Kalihi doesn’t. It remains a singular Oahu dining experience, one that Oahu visitors looking for “local food” would do well to consider. It’s not a 1950’s-style Honolulu bakery and coffee shop. It is a 1950’s Honolulu bakery and coffee shop, and it’s among the last of its kind.