Light glints off the Saran-wrapped bricks, neatly arranged in a stainless-steel chafing dish—rectangular slabs of teriyaki Spam atop a slightly sweet marinated rice base, all bound by a black belt of nori. Each one is a spot-on rendition of musubi, Hawaii’s signature snack, except some may have a layer of spicy tuna, a slash or two of green avocado, a few ribbons of bacon.
Though far from a Hawaiian island, Cafe Kai is no stranger to watery environs: Slice across Puget Sound by ferry to Bremerton, where lilting reggae plays inside a bright cafe, an oasis amid bland hospital buildings and accounting firms on sleepy Wheaton Way.
In restaurants, picking one thing and getting it right is a time-honored formula for success. But Cafe Kai joins a handful of places around the region that takes this concept to gloriously specific extremes. When owners Jamie Cancel and Brandon Sumailo opened their cafe in 2016, they served espresso drinks and paninis to lunch crowds. But business was sluggish, and the Oahu natives didn’t feel like paninis truly represented them. “We started creating all these musubis,” says Cancel of the Hawaiian staple that marries Japanese onigiri, or rice balls, with the salty manufactured meat miracle that is Spam, “making sure to stick to traditional flavors we grew up with in Hawaii.”
There’s a near-classic iteration of teriyaki Spam. Other musubi march to the tune of an island-style breakfast, either with Spam, bacon, and egg or Spam, bacon, and avocado—the avocado toast of Hawaii perhaps? Then there’s braised kalua pork sandwiched by two decks of rice, dusted with furikake. Cafe Kai makes six kinds of musubi each day. When the person behind the counter asks, “Have you had musubi before?” it has the ring of a repeated question, the kind gently lobbed to the uninitiated.
Not that a food need be little known to merit this sort of cornucopian treatment. As its name implies, Nothing Bundt Cakes commits to its eponymous treat (and dad-joke-styled pun) rather than embrace a bakery’s usual philosophy of “more is more.” At the chain’s Mill Creek and Issaquah locations, pastry cases are stocked with full- and individual-size bundt cakes in conventional-yet-flavorsome options like red velvet and snappy lemon, each ring-shaped confection piped with thick fingers of cream cheese frosting. Then tucked away in the corner of a vast Lynnwood parking lot next to a roller rink and a shop to score cash for gold lives the wood-paneled soda emporium known as Chug’s Root Beer and More (the more: other specialty sodas). Inside, owner David Castle presides over what he says is the world’s largest brick-and-mortar selection of root beer—carrying more than 100 different kinds. Behind a tiny bar, he dispenses drafts and craft floats from a couple of taps and can advise you on which root beer kids will love (Frostie tastes like a root beer float in a bottle) or hate (anything anise forward).
“Root beer is a very American thing,” says Castle as he stands before his mighty supply. So are musubi and bundt cake. And so is our collective penchant for loving options. This hidden-away charm at spots like Cafe Kai begs for another American tradition—a road trip. Or better yet, a boat ride across the bay.