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 cocinahawaii.com.