As a gritty industrial district for decades, the Kaka’ako area of Oahu, Hawaii is located just a few miles outside of Waikiki and near downtown Honolulu. It has since been transformed into a lively art and culinary destination over the past several years.
Vibrant and artsy, this urban community has a cosmopolitan island vibe and now features modern high-rise condominiums, plenty of hip boutiques and eclectic shops, fun bars and breweries, and much more.
Meli James is the co-founder of Mana Up, a Hawaii-based initiative and accelerator program that helps many food-focused businesses and other start-ups succeed. She believes Kaka’ako is an ideal location for creative innovators and restaurants.
She says, “Kaka’ako is a great destination for the community and tourists to come together and support artists as well as entrepreneurs. The neighborhood is unique and emphasizes the importance of new businesses in a curated environment. The many recently-built residences make it exciting because there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic and steady stream of customers – and that combination is what’s really amazing about the area.”
The epicenter of the vibrant food scene in this part of town is SALT at Our Kaka’ako complex. It’s home to a number of bustling restaurants, specialty stores, coffee shops and casual cafes.
One of the area’s top restaurants, Moku Kitchen, features award-winning chef Peter Merriman’s seasonal versions of authentic upcountry specialties. This stylish eatery has a full menu with many favorites that include Kalua pork and pineapple hand-tossed pizza; fresh island fish tacos made with mahi mahi; and steak frites with house-cut fries.
Don’t skip the sides, as the Jalapeno mashed potatoes are a best-seller. The house-made desserts include strawberry cream pie and chocolate mac nut. (And this family-friendly spot has a children’s menu, as well.)
Redfish Poke bar by Foodland is a nearby Kaka’ako restaurant with an assortment of inventive fresh poke bowls, salads and other fresh dishes, as well as signature cocktails and more. The head chef is Reid Matsumura, an Oahu native who creates a modern take on island classics.
Several popular dishes include okonomiyaki fries, made with scallions, furikake and pickled ginger; miso shiso wings with lemon and miso glaze; and lechon kawali, pork belly with onion, soy, nuoc cham sauce and tomato.
For a traditional taste of the islands, check out Highway Inn Kaka’ako, a family-run restaurant that’s been in business since the 1940s. Their signature Hawaiian-style menu features a variety of classic plates with a blend of zesty flavors, such as their Hawaiian moco, which is pork (or chicken) lau lau with beef stew gravy, topped with an egg and lomi salmon.
Their sun noodle fried yakisoba is a spicy stir fry with locally-made noodles and Spam, green onions and a fish cake. The plantation mixed plate features pūlehu boneless short ribs, grilled chicken and panko-crusted island fish that’s accompanied by a generous portion of furikake rice.
This busy neighborhood is home to other great food options, too, such as Hank’s Haute Dogs, a casual spot with an array of gourmet hot dogs and toppings.
Kaka’ako is also a treasure trove of locally-made favorites to bring home, such as the delightful Lonohana Estate Chocolate shop, with a bean-to-bar philosophy. Their products are made with all-natural, organic ingredients. If you’re craving some java or tea, check out Morning Brew for fresh, house-roasted beans, tea and other delectable treats.
Kaka’ako’s beer scene says “Aloha”
Kaka’ako is home to several breweries within walking distance, including Aloha Beer Company, a neighborhood hot spot that attracts repeat customers with a variety of rotating handcrafted offerings on tap, made with local ingredients. It also features a new, East Coast-style pizzeria that serves up a selection of slices, whole pies, salads and other light bites, such as wings and fries.
There’s room to move around in this pet-friendly establishment, with multiple indoor/outdoor spaces, including an expansive shaded beer garden with seating for nearly 100 guests – and a “secret” speakeasy with a whimsical, rock ‘n’ roll vibe.
The owner of Aloha Beer Company, Dave Campbell, explains, “The neighborhood always had the ‘cool’ factor going for it – and it’s been growing. There’s so much culinary talent here, and it’s fantastic to see the businesses and restaurants in the neighborhood upping their game over the years.”
He added that during the pandemic, the business has continued to thrive: “Thankfully, we’ve actually doubled our sales over pre-COVID, so we’re really blessed. The neighborhood has weathered it well and tourism is really coming back.”
This neighborhood is also home to the Kaka’ako Farmers Market, which is held in Ward Village every Saturday morning. It’s always buzzing with a multitude of fresh food products and more sourced from the local community, so it’s an ideal place to get an authentic “taste” of the islands.
You’ll find an abundance of fresh, local fruits, vegetables and homemade specialties, as well as tasty baked goods and other delectable offerings. All of these vendor stalls are owned by locals, who are passionate about sharing their products and honoring native Hawaiian culture through the fresh ingredients.
Ward Village has plenty of shopping options, too, with over 100 stores selling art, jewelry, flowers and clothing, as well as one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
Art and more in Kaka’ako
In addition to the vibrant food community in Kaka’ako, the neighborhood is also a haven for artists – and you’ll immediately notice the many massive and memorable colorful murals painted on the sides of warehouses and other businesses across the entire neighborhood.
All of this is courtesy of Pow Wow Hawaii, a collective lead by Jasper Wong that invites artists from the islands, as well as across the globe, to decorate the structures annually. Currently, there are a multitude of splashy murals adorning this area – and you can easily spend a few hours wandering and admiring the incredible (and very Instagrammable) street art.
If you can’t get enough of the Pow Wow artwork, you’re in luck! Visit the island’s Bishop Museum to see the new exhibit, “POW! WOW! The First Decade: From Hawaii to the World” (May 2021 – September 2021). It celebrates the noteworthy art and the many artists who have contributed over the years.
Although Kaka’ako is an urban area, it’s a quick walk to the ocean. So, if you wish to take a beach break after dining here, stroll over to the Kaka’ako Waterfront Park, an expansive space and a great spot to relax and simply enjoy the lovely Hawaiian scenery after exploring this fascinating neighborhood.