My wife and I wound up eating three times at Ken’s House of Pancakes, near Arnott’s Lodge where we were staying during our time in Hilo. It came up as a local favorite in a couple of sources. Our Mauna Kea tour guide also said it was his favorite place to get saimin.
The fact that Ken’s has been around for over 35 years says a lot about its popularity—“jammin’ since 1971,” as Ken’s is fond of publicizing. It’s one of those places that you sense immediately that locals come here often, even if the corner parking lot can inconveniently be entered only from Highway 19 driving eastbound.
The breakfast menu is impressive. The first item listed is pancakes, which comes in different sizes and combinations, including island-popular coconut and macadamia versions. And what would any respectable diner be without its signature huge portion-sized concoction? Try their Kilauea, Our King of Stacks: three huge buttermilk pancakes layered with bacon, slab of smoked ham, and topped with two eggs. I can’t end this paragraph without mentioning Ken’s three house-made pancake syrups: coconut (my favorite), lilikoi and guava. They are intensely flavored and just sweet enough, justifiably famous. Other carbofoods include French toast and waffles.
Eggs ’n’ Things include two eggs, rice/hash browns, and pancakes with a choice of standard breakfast meats, but also different kinds of sausages (Portuguese, blood, Vienna, Scottish bangers) or mahi mahi, Spam, ground beef patty, or steak. There are many house specialties too numerous to mention, including snow crab or lop cheung omelets.
For our first breakfast, we split Portuguese sausage Eggs ’n’ Things (☆☆☆), which the kitchen was nice enough to divide for us. A good breakfast, but the fried rice was too soft. The choice for a side of fruit was either canned peaches or fresh papaya. Duh. The ripe papaya was served with a slice of a local lime, which was gigantic.
We returned for dinner later in the day after spending the day at the Hilo Farmers Market, Queen Lili’uokalani Birthday Celebration, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Akaka Falls and Mr. Ed’s Bakery. A customer favorite is Ken’s ox tail stew. Tonight was an opportunity to try the saimin, too.
I don’t know if it’s an island thing, but my preference is for a thinner stew, one that’s not thickened with gobs of flour. Ken’s was very thick and flavored with herbs that were overpowering. All the vegetables—carrots, bell peppers, celery, onions—were cut too large, about 3″, also distracting. Meat from ox tails are always a challenge to free up from bone, and they were no exception tonight. This normally is not an issue with me, but combined with the other annoyances, it was. The stew may be a customer favorite, but it wasn’t mine (☆☆).
Hawaiians like their saimin noodles soft. Such was the case tonight, as were the wrappers around the wonton. The flavor of the shrimp-flavored broth was quite good, much better than Zippy’s, but the chashu had the off-flavor of having been refrigerated for too long. Overall, not a bad saimin (☆☆½).
Our last breakfast in Hilo was spent at Ken’s because it was close to the airport. One of the specials was a kalua pork hash loco moco served over rice and topped with fried eggs. A great attribute of hash is its crispiness, our preference being the crispier, the better. This quality is not compromised much by corned beef since it doesn’t exude much moisture. Thus, it should’ve occurred to me that kalua pork, which is inherently very juicy, and gravy poured over loco moco are recipes for sogginess. If I didn’t think of it as hash, the dish was still tasty (☆☆½).
While there was nothing extraordinary we had there, Ken’s is a solid restaurant with a broad menu and good breakfast options. And it has a neighborhood vibe, even at the crossroads of two highways.
Ken’s House of Pancakes
1730 Kamehameha Ave
Hilo, HI 96720