Building Blocks


Jonathan Van Horn’s childhood pastime helps him build a city.

Text by Carmichael Doan | Images by Jonas Maon

Utilizing more than 37,000 interlocking Lego pieces, wedges, and gears, 3D-modeler and architect Jonathan Van Horn has created an astounding rendering that highlights the coming changes to the Our Kaka‘ako neighborhood with playful flair.

“This is like an OCD dream for me,” says Van Horn, who grew up piecing together Lego models on his bedroom floor. Even as a child, Van Horn envisioned that one day he would design Lego sets for other children to puzzle over. Eventually, he was drawn to 3D-rendering and began writing software for a major game-design studio. His foray into gaming, however, was derailed as a result of 9/11, which wiped out much of the game-design market. Inspired by his father, an architect who worked on projects in Kaka‘ako decades ago, Van Horn switched gears and eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture from University of California, Berkeley.


Van Horn’s childhood hobby became an integral part of his design process. He found that he could reify complex ideas using intricate Lego models. In that fashion, the model he built for Our Kaka‘ako is a way to appeal to the community without pomp and posturing, a way to present a vision that people could see and connect with. The initial drawings were created with the same program he uses for architectural design, but executing them wasn’t without complication. “There are angles and details that Lego pieces just don’t conform to,” he says of the process of matching, sorting, and buying each piece to fit snuggly and uniformly into a sprawling, organic landscape. “In those cases you have to use your imagination to figure a way to create that illusion without it becoming cartoonish or unrealistic.”

The pieces were bought from the Lego Store in Honolulu, online, and from Bricks and Minifigs in Kailua. Each piece was carefully chosen and vetted, and it paid off. The culmination of this graduated child’s play, designed over the course of three months and built in about 15 days, is an impressive and seamless transition from design into plastic landscape. Ultimately, Van Horn describes the process as a challenging but fun way to bring an idea to life. A vision to behold, his work is an eye-catching piece of art that bridges the past and future, brick by plastic brick.

Van Horn’s Lego model is on display at the Our Kaka‘ako Information Center, located at 660 Ala Moana Blvd. The entrance is on Keawe Street.


Smoke and Steam


Enjoy local eats for breakfast, lunch, or dinner at Highway Inn.

First, let me just say that I love Hawaiian food. Much like how I love Hawai‘i. The scenery, the delightful concoction of cultures, and the people (most of whom gravitate toward plate lunches and spicy ahi pokē) make this small, isolated island chain what it is today. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Today, I’m lunching at Highway Inn on the Our Kaka‘ako block facing Ala Moana Boulevard with my sister/aspiring chef/food fanatic, Jolie, and my brother-in-law, Terry. A tall, American-educated entrepreneur with a typical love-hate relationship with metropolitan cities, Terry grew up in the Midwest, where his diet primarily consisted of meat and potatoes. Only recently has he opened up to the idea of ethnic cuisine, and my sister couldn’t be happier—though I have to admit their frequent disagreements about food are often amusing to me.

Cuisines are key to their corresponding cultures and should be celebrated. Luckily for us, the historic Highway Inn opened a second location last year in Our Kaka‘ako and features traditional Hawaiian favorites like lau lau, beef stew and na‘au pua‘a (pork chitterlings and taro leaf stew), all made with the same recipes that owner Monica Toguchi’s grandparents used when they opened the first Highway Inn 67 years ago. The atmosphere is laid-back and full of locals (always a good sign), a modern iteration of black and white photographs hanging on the walls that feature Hawaiian families and long-ago island life. The interior is bright, with a sleek plantation style that provides plenty of room for a wide range of clientele who come for their whole fried ‘akule and poi Twinkies.


As I’m looking around, our order arrives. The lau lau combo plate includes juicy pork wrapped in taro leaf served alongside rice, sweet potato, lomi lomi salmon, chicken long rice, and haupia. It takes hours to prepare Hawaiian food of this caliber. Traditionally, an imu (pit oven) was used to get that nice, smoky flavoring in the pork, but today, Highway Inn makes an equally savory version with an oven and liquid mesquite. Surprisingly, my sister and Terry agree on the wonderful, robust flavors of the kālua pig and the lau lau.

“I think we are getting somewhere!” my sister shouts, elated at Terry’s satisfied demeanor. “I didn’t know Hawaiian food could be so good,” he replies. “I’m impressed.” For dessert, we gorge on the pineapple upside-down cake made with kiawe flour.

With an array of glorious dishes, Highway Inn offers food that is memorable and real. After listening to Terry talk about the food of the Midwest, I am happy to live in a world where sizzling smoked pork and pipikaula exist a short drive away from Italian hoagies and headcheese carnitas. We are only too lucky to have a restaurant steeped in tradition so close to our urban grid, a restaurant that continues to perpetuate Hawai‘i’s culture.

Highway Inn is located at 680 Ala Moana Blvd. For more information, visit


The Head Cheese


Share laughs—and wine—with friends both old and new at Danny Kaaialii’s Cocina.

They’ve never been here until today, but when I meet them at the entrance of Cocina one evening in late September, my friends look like happy dogs, panting and licking their chops. It is our favorite hour of the day—dinnertime. We quickly rush inside, the inviting aromas and cozy interior immediately putting us at ease.

My friends, both born and raised in Hawai‘i, are of fine appetite and impeccable taste. Tiffany grew up learning generations-old Vietnamese recipes, occasionally dines at Michelin-starred restaurants, and even dated a chef once, which in my opinion, says a lot about her dedication to good food. Molly, on the other hand, grew up frequenting five-star restaurants, though her first love is a good home-cooked meals. “Give me a pickle, some lemon, some coffee ice cream, and a home-cooked meal,” she says, “and you have my heart.”


The space is the perfect marriage of pavement and picnic, a sound structure with an autumnal feel. After putting in our order at the counter, we are ready to settle in for some serious girl talk. There are a few seats inside, next to the open kitchen, but we opt for the benches out front, where we are lulled by a young gal playing acoustic guitar. Two minutes later, when we decide it’s time to take things up a notch with some adult beverages, we realize we forgot to BYOB. Luckily, a couple sitting nearby offers us a glass of wine to go with our meal. And just like that, our foursome becomes a six-some. The perks of communal seating. In no time, we are all talking over plates of delicious food: tree-hugger tacos, papas fritas, and tacos featuring locally caught fish.

As we enjoy our order of perfect rice topped with the perfect egg, Kamehameha Schools asset manager Christian O’Connor, whose job is to cultivate and maintain Our Kaka‘ako, happens upon our table. O’Connor is deliciously opinionated, but he is open to our thoughts and ideas about the budding district and its flavors. “Behind Cocina lies a deep understanding of interior Mexican food, textures, and ingredients,” he tells us. “It takes the urban burrito shop for late night grinds to something accessible at all times of the day.”

Midway through, owner Danny Kaaialii asks us how everything is going. We groan with satisfaction. We talk about his favorite recipes and about the forging of Cocina. Kaaialii has roots in Texas, and for Cocina, he chose a concept that was close to his heart. It translates into a place bursting with love in every dish. “Good food isn’t complicated,” he says. “When you take away all the distractions of running a business, the plan is simplified. All I’m trying to do is create a place where people come together and share good conversation over good food.” And his efforts have paid off: In the course of a couple of hours, he has managed to join three groups into one happy, satisfied crew.

Cocina is located at 667 Auahi St. For more information, visit


Hop to It


Drink up and chow down at Honolulu Beerworks.

I have come to Honolulu Beerworks in search of one thing. You guessed it—beer. My companion on this journey is my boyfriend, Jack Miller III, a Hawai‘i-born, university-educated beer-pong enthusiast who prides himself on “eating and drinking people down.” A stunning renovation of a previously decommissioned industrial building, Honolulu Beerworks is reminiscent of a typical brewery found in the boroughs of New York City. The décor is rustic, the food straightforward, and the crowd high-energy. There’s artwork by artists from Our Kaka‘ako’s collaborative creative workspace, Lana Lane Studios, on the walls, and AC/DC blaring from the stereo.

With a beer menu of a dozen or so choices, all of which are brewed in-house, my approach is strategic. Start off with tasters then move to pints, depending on which ones tickle my fancy. With each taster at just $2 a pop, what’s there to lose? While I’m deciding between the Sheltered Bay IPA and the Oktoberfest Vienna Lager, Jack orders the IPA, mac ’n’ cheese, and smoked ahi dip from our server. In the spirit of the famed German festival, I decide on the lager.

We walk past the high stools at the bar and cozy wooden benches alongside sturdy tables to the sidewalk patio, where Jack and I cheers to the first round of the night. To be honest, I’m not a beer drinker, but the amazingly crisp, chilled carbonated drink couldn’t have tasted sweeter. As happy, drunken chatter flows around us, I think of how the “eat local” movement has reinvigorated the area.


Just a few years ago, this space was a dilapidated hole in which owner Geoff Seideman saw great potential. A Pennsylvania transplant, he spent years conceptualizing a new breed for the area. Or, as I recall him saying, “A place where everything could be seen, touched, felt. Ultimately, I built a place I would feel comfortable going into.” A few days before my visit with Jack, Geoff had shown me the newest batch of IPA fermenting in one of the steel tanks in the back. I was able to witness the whole process, which takes about 10 hours. Every few weeks, a new beer is introduced to the menu. Future plans include beer dinners and public tours, giving the community even more access to the local microbrews.

I direct my attention back to our table, and Jack is licking our plates clean. I make the swift decision to order the remaining handful of items we haven’t tried yet, including sliders with tender pork braised in miso and Beerworks’ Kaka‘ako Kolsch lager; candied beer nuts with a hint of curry; and Bavarian soft pretzels—perfect complements to my second beer sample, the Pia Mahi‘ai Saison. Notes of sweet honey, tangy citrus, and a hint of spice win me over from the start. I make the transition to a pint.

“We’ve got ourselves a great little watering hole,” Jack tells me through the deep, boozy warmth. The people at the table next to us are celebrating a friend’s birthday, and they turn to us, raising their glasses. We drink to the woman’s birthday, to success, to our friendships, to our families, and to each other. It takes me only a second to realize that this space, once a metal foundry and machine shop, is not just a trendy locavore’s utopia but also a hopeful interpretation of home.

Honolulu Beerworks is located at 328 Cooke St. For more information, visit