Liliha Bakery, cinnamon twists
Image: DilMichael

Popular local bakeries must have more to offer than their star treats…right?

Local bakeries are built upon tradition.

Tradition springs from family and customer loyalty, the hope being that, even when times change, traditions won’t.

And that’s exactly how the bakeries in Hawaii have grown–at least, the ones that traverse the journey from humble beginnings into gold namesakes–such as Zippy’s, Leonard’s, La Tour Bakehouse (Ba-Le’s new parent company name) and Liliha Bakery. All ring a bell with locals; the very sight of their boxes or bags cause watered mouths.

Each of these four are known for one particular specialty: Zippy’s for their Napples (puff pastry apple turnovers), Leonard’s for malasadas, La Tour for breads (especially baguette, but more recently for more hearty country loaves) and Liliha Bakery, of course, for coco-puffs (chocolate pudding filled pate choux with chantilly cream). But what about their other selections? What are the other edible gems, overshadowed by the best sellers?

Determined to dig deeper past the headliners, I asked around for suggestions that might point me toward other promising, tasty offerings. I discovered that many people actually have other favorites about which they feel strongly. Recommendations were surprisingly unanimous: the Dream Cake from Zippy’s ($2.62 a slice), raisin snails from Leonard’s ($1.25), palmiers from La Tour ($4.50 a bag) and cinnamon twists from Liliha Bakery ($1.40).

And so the investigation began: awkwardly calling and visiting each bakery to ask for quotes, (“Hi, I’m from the Honolulu Weekly, may I get a quote about one of your pastries?”) while attempting to explain why I wasn’t writing about their famous goodies. (“Okay, you want to know about our cocoa puffs?…No?…”) The responses turned out to be curious, if anything, toward my illustrious food expedition, and it proved harder than I expected to find out more about the four different bakeries and pastries.

Zippy’s was the only restaurant who returned my emails through the first round of correspondence, being incredibly accommodating, but the other three bakeries, after a second round of contact via phone, kept redirecting me (to my slight chagrin).

Getting to taste the four pastries was a different story. Dealing with sweets is a completely different experience than dealing with people; they can’t talk back or ignore your calls.

The Dream Cake from Zippy’s really does evoke recollections of dreams, fluffy pillows and air mattresses. From the exterior, covered with curled-by-hand chocolate shavings, to the light chocolate chiffon cake, each bite is its own bit of rich decadence. My favorite part about the cake is the light whipped cream icing, which is a nice change from the heavy buttercream frosting used in most cakes.

Jan Tsukazaki from Zippy’s describes the company’s thoughts on the Dream Cake, likening it to “a little bit of chocolate heaven.” A bite of the light cake doesn’t exactly transport me to a world above, but it is memorable. “The star of the cake are the chocolate curls,” Tsukazaki explains, and for chocolate lovers, I can imagine it is so. The curls are fun to pick off and save for last luxurious bites.

Before cinnamon rolls became faddish, there was the humble breakfast snail. Even the name sounds like an underdog–who really wakes up wanting to a pastry called a snail? After some hesitation, my friend Tricia and I decided to try Leonard’s raisin snail. At first glance, the snail doesn’t look like much, a glazed roll with sprinkled raisins. However, to my pleasant surprise, Leonard’s raisin snail tastes freshly baked, simple and not overly sweet. My first bite was deep and satisfying, very different from most breakfast cinnamon rolls dunked in icing. Tricia liked the denseness of the snail, while I took a liking to the unique frosting, which tasted curiously like a mix between pineapple and guava.

Upon trying to get a quote from the ladies at the Leonard’s counter about their unfamiliar goodies, I ended up going through the line twice, getting rejected the first time by a prompt, “No.” Turns out, only Leonard Rego, Jr., himself speaks for his company. However, one of the kind workers took pity on me and offered to take my phone number, promising that a manager would contact me soon. I never got that call.

When I first heard about palmiers, I couldn’t imagine how a simple twist of flaky dough could be considered extraordinary. My frame of reference for baked pastry dough falls upon mediocre experiences with stale turnovers and bland chicken pot pie. But after tasting La Tour/Ba-Le’s palmiers, it became clear that they are doing something right. The baked-in crystallized sugary crust encasing the twisted palmier provides just the right contrast to the flaky inside. Somehow, this combination brings the palmier beyond the simple into the elegant.

Thi Lam, Sales and Marketing Manager at La Tour Bakehouse explains that “palmier” means “palm tree” in French, possibly in reference to its grooved shape. They’re baked as thin layers of dough, rolled out with butter and sugar in between, which give the palmiers a distinct crunch and subtle sweetness. “It’s a great accompaniment to tea or coffee,” she said. Just thinking about it makes me want to drink some English tea, pinkies up. Since La Tour bakes for all the Ba-Le sandwich shops, catering operations and other outlets, Lam says that they also offer their palmiers at Foodland and various farmers markets.

As for cinnamon twists, well, those have been tried and done by other bakeries–Cinnabon and Taco Bell have their variations. The crunchy treat is topped with sugar and cinnamon, which is either dusted on top or baked in. What results is a mix between extreme textures and gratification for anyone with a sweet tooth. Sounds simple enough, but it turns out, Liliha Bakery’s version is most memorable.

One of the ladies who helped me at the bakery noted that their cinnamon twists are actually pretty popular amongst regulars. “A lot of people like it,” she commented, and continued to describe the twists “like churros, but harder. Like a French doughnut.” Since I had never heard of their version, I decided to set my expectations high, based on her description. The cinnamon twist is extremely sweet, with its caramelized sugar and cinnamon glaze baked right into the dense dough. Each bite closely resembles a caramel consistency, but is not too intense to risk a sugar high. One cinnamon twist left me well satisfied.

All four of these pastries have one commonality. They’re all time-tested goodies that just happen to be overshadowed by currently popular items. Clearly, there’s more to the picture than what is advertised, and the four respective bakeries thankfully have continued to bake these products for those diehards who have loved them all along.

Zippy’s Restaurant
Various locations, 1765 S. King St., 973-0880, []
Leonard’s Bakery,
933 Kapahulu Ave., Open Sun.–Thu. 5:30am–10pm, Fri.–Sat. 5:30am–11pm, 737-5591, []
La Tour Bakehouse,
Various Ba-Le locations plus, 888 N. Nimitz Hwy. #102, 847-4600, []
Liliha Bakery
515 N. Kuakini St., Open 24 hrs from Tue. 6am–Sun. 8pm, closed Mon., 531-1651, []