Imaginative menu, friendliness, low price have 'em coming back to Kava's

Riza Brown

A few months ago, I drove past the squat brown building by the Northway Mall that I'd come to think of as a pop-up restaurant and noticed that new tenants had moved in. I felt a sense of trepidation; somehow, I knew that I would be the one who ended up reviewing Kava's Pancake House and I really wanted this one to succeed.

As soon as I walked in, the restaurant felt instantly familiar, like a place that I've been coming to for years. This was easy enough to explain. In 2009, I reviewed it in its seafood iteration known as Captain Chuck's (great halibut sandwiches) and again in 2012, when the building went through a fusion phase with the catchy moniker Asian Cajun. Less than a year and half later, there I was, taking in the brick that's been painted yet again and the tables that evoke an even earlier ghost of restaurants past, Pizza Hut. What fresh food vision had this merry-go-round engendered?

Breakfast. All day. I liked it already. And there's an island spin: Spam and eggs ($9), loco moco ($9.50), kalua pig special on Thursdays ($9), along with the ubiquitous French dip ($9.25) and eggs benny ($9.75). I was taking this order to go so I randomly chose: fried chicken ($10.50) and the Ono Ono waffle ($9.50), recommended to me by the owner, Robert Tofaeono.

I will come back to Kava's many more times than the requisite two visits that a review typically requires and Rob will be there each time, smiling and greeting his customers. It seems that everybody knows him. This is another good sign -- the diners are friendly with him and with each other, giving the place a homeyness that makes it far more attractive than its modest diner duds.

That particular night, I laid out my feast and took inventory. Four pieces of chicken, golden and crunchy. A pile of white rice and a side of mac salad (de rigueur for any island meal) and this massive waffle, its every nook and cranny oozing chocolate, peanut butter, drifts of whipped cream and a bonanza of banana slices. Diner portions should be large and this did not disappoint.

The fried chicken was excellent. I was actually surprised at how good it was, taking bite after bite to determine what exactly it was that I liked so much. After I had a pile of bones in front of me, I realized that the chicken was chicken-sized, not Chernobyl chicken-sized. The crust was satisfying and the meat juicy, but, quite honestly, it reminded me of the fried chicken that my mother would whip up for Wednesday dinner. Nothing fancy, just simple and good, and she served it with rice, like Kava's.

On my next visit, I brought my father-in-law, Chip, and my husband, Jeff. Chip knew the owner (surprise!) and they had a nice chat about the possibilities of the restaurant and its initial success. Our server -- that time and every time I went in -- was friendly, helpful and attentive.

Tofaeono worked at Village Inn for 17 years and at Denny's for another five; this experience convinced him that it was time for him to open his own business, and good service is certainly a priority.

"Kava is a ceremonial drink that we serve to kings and chiefs of the Polynesian Islands," he told me. "So when you come to Kava's, know that you are royalty!"

If actual royalty were to arrive, Tofaeono would bring out the sumo moco ($12.50), three hamburger patties, three eggs and gravy on rice, with a side of pancakes, made from scratch.

My more bourgeois appetite hankered after the bacon cheeseburger ($8.75), which I topped with an egg and jalape├▒os ($2.75). The bun was average but the meat was charred and smoky, the bacon crisply cooked and the fried egg gave it breakfast flair.

By the time I reached across the table to steal a forkful of my husband's Cajun skillet ($10.50), it was almost gone. I satisfied myself with coconut-syrup-drizzled pancakes and his last bite of reindeer sausage.

My trepidation had disappeared and a saying as old as the first family diner popped into my head: Third time's the charm.

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By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent