The red vinyl covering the seat of the booth groaned as I reached for my yellow mug of diner coffee. Suddenly, my weekend morning (OK, early afternoon) was interrupted by a wave of recollection: driving in a white Jeep on a road that hugged the ocean, windows down and music up.
Much to the dismay of my mother, I have now lived in both of the outlying states in the U.S.: Hawaii and Alaska. As a senior in high school, my rural upbringing and craving for adventure spurred my decision to apply to a university on the island of Oahu.
A few months later, I learned that I got in. With some finagling, faith, and financial aid, I boarded a plane alone and left everything I knew behind. When I landed, I had to figure out how to catch a city bus.
In Honolulu, a city of a million souls, I saw for the first time what it looked like for people to live on top of one another — on the ranch our nearest neighbor was a mile away. I became aware of new cultures each accompanied by their own sights, smells and tastes.
Our sense of smell is intricately linked to our sense of taste — and to memory. So as I reached for that Fiestaware mug, it was the smell of the Kava’s Pancake House breakfast fried rice that transported me to that day years ago when my friends and I were driving to the North Shore of Oahu.
There are two Kava’s Pancake Houses: one near the Northway Mall on Penland Parkway and the other on Muldoon Road. I’ve sampled both, though I tend visit the the one by Northway when I’m in the mood for Kava’s.
Like the island lifestyle, everything slows down inside the diner. At times there could be only one server for the whole place and no matter what it seems like they’re short and someone called in sick. Though, I’ve never experienced anything but courteous service, slow or otherwise.
If I’m being honest, with the world and myself, one of the main reasons I go to Kava’s is because they serve Spam. On the side ($3.95), with eggs ($12.00), with pancakes ($11.95), on top of my breakfast fried rice ($13.95) — Kava’s has Spam almost anyway you want it.
Spam’s reputation as a grungy low-brow food in the mainland (read: Lower 48) is starkly opposite in Hawaii, where locals consume more than 7 million cans per year, according to the company. Thus, a love of Spam is apparent in the menu at Kava’s.
One of the draws for Kava’s customers is their huge (and I mean YUUUGE) portions for a relatively inexpensive price. Don’t believe me? Look them up on Facebook, where people post about the huge plates of food. One person even coined the phrase “Kava’s Pancake House full” to describe the level of their satiation.
Some other favorites: loco moco ($13.95), a hamburger patty topped with brown gravy and served with eggs, rice, macaroni salad and a choice of pancakes, biscuits or toast. Try the sumo loco ($16.95) and upgrade to a one-pound burger patty and three eggs.
Loco moco always reminds me of the common Hawaiian meal, plate lunch. It’s simple yet utterly complete. Walking along the streets you’d have a choice of vendors offering plate lunch, served on a squeaky styrofoam plate; I’d always go wherever they gave an extra scoop of macaroni salad.
Back at the Anchorage pancake house, the flapjacks get high marks, with the Ono and Hawaiian menu options being crowd-pleasers (both $12.95).
Quietly, Kava’s has become an overnight sensation — as in they are now open 24 hours on Saturdays. They serve breakfast all day long, which is part of their appeal, but they also have other options on their menu, including burgers, sandwiches, steak and fried chicken.
Comments on the restaurant’s Yelp page from other eaters say the restaurant is dingy and dirty. And it’s true that the place is a retrofitted building with a brown I-don’t-want-to-know-what-it’s-seen color carpet, but thanks to the municipality’s new open records initiative the restaurant’s latest health inspection score is readily available: 98 out of 100. A little rough around the edges, but welcoming and warm.
Though their menu encompasses typical American diner food, I think their no frills down-to-Earth options are what really shine at Kava’s Pancake House. Like a day on Oahu, sun shining, sand between your toes in your slippers, with few cares but getting to the beach. We don’t have sun or sand, but we have Kava’s and we’ve got Spam.
Published on KTVA.com on October 27, 2016.