Fried, filled, dusted, and glazed — in search of the capital’s signature fried pastry in every form
Hot, fried, adorably puffy and round, malassadas are some of the most delightful confections found all over Honolulu. They range from palm-size to bigger than your hand. A traditional malassada is simply coated in white granulated sugar, but they are frequently served with flavored sugars and fillings. Some are denser, others airier; some are almost wet, others perilously dry; each style has its proponents, and I have come to believe there truly is a malassada for every desire.
Eggier than a typical mainland yeasted doughnut, malassadas came to Hawai‘i in the 19th century with immigrant workers from the Azores and Madeira, who brought with them this Portuguese fried dough. Malassadas make for an easy breakfast, but many bakeries stay open through the evening, as they also make for a perfect afternoon snack or after-dinner dessert. Today, these special doughnuts can be found across Hawai‘i, and Honolulu is home to many shops offering takes that range from classic to newfangled — which makes them perfect for a crawl.
A bit about food crawls: whether it’s a taco crawl in Austin, Texas, or Los Angeles, a pizza crawl in New Haven, Connecticut, or an ice cream crawl in New York City, planning is key. Go all in on one food, prioritize quality over quantity, and, if you can, go with a local or an expert.
Eater contributor and sweets obsessive Kathy YL Chan guided me on a five-stop, daylong crawl through the city. Each shop we visited served a unique function in the Honolulu malassada landscape, from tourist traps to old classics to new-school favorites.
Whether you’re planning a crawl or simply choosing one malassada shop to hit, here’s the lay of the land:
The Standard Bearer: Leonard’s Bakery
Leonard’s Bakery, opened in 1952, is perhaps the most famous purveyor of malassadas in Hawai‘i, with a giant blinking retro sign and a gaggle of camera-toting visitors outside. The factors that make Leonard’s annoying — the crowds, the long line, the general obviousness of it — also contribute to its winning formula. The best malassada is a fresh-from-the-fryer malassada. And at Leonard’s, high volume means all the malassadas are fried to order, in huge, consistent volume.
Of the five malassadas we sampled from the iconic pink box, my favorite was the simple, unfilled malassada dusted in cinnamon sugar, which allowed the flavor of the warm, sweet dough and cinnamon to shine, even if the sugar mixture got all over my fingers, jeans and camera. The malassada fillings — haupia (creamy coconut, based on the traditional Hawaiian pudding) and dobash (rich chocolate) — were tasty but, for me, unnecessary, since the real pleasure of a Leonard’s malassada is the delicate lightness of the freshly fried dough, unmatched by any other bakery on the crawl. 933 Kapahulu Avenue
The New Wave: Pipeline Bakeshop & Creamery
Opened by a Leonard’s alum last September, Pipeline Bakeshop is the new kid on the block. A sweet cafe in charming Kaimukī, Pipeline sets the scene for an elevated experience, and it delivers on that with a serious malassada operation. Pipeline fries to order as a matter of policy. It was one of only two bakeries I visited that doesn’t offer fillings. Instead, malassadas come coated in white sugar, cocoa sugar, coffee sugar, or li hing (salty dried plum) sugar.
Senia pastry chef and Eater Young Gun Mimi Mendoza counts Pipeline as her personal favorite, raving about the “super fluffy and crispy” malassadas. Her description hit the nail on the head. Of the breadier malassadas I tried, Pipeline’s are the gold standard — the crumb drier than Leonard’s but still light and springy. I went for the classic white sugar and the li hing, which, in addition to being a bright pink, had a nice zing.
These malassadas are substantial and feel more like a baked good than a fried doughnut. And for those ready to branch out, Pipeline also serves riffs like malassada bread pudding, or the Malamode, a malassada filled with ice cream.
Crawl tip: If you want to take any malassadas to go, either to enjoy or gift later or even the next day, buy from Pipeline. My half-eaten malassadas maintained their integrity hours after purchase. 3632 Wai’alae Avenue
Best for Fillings: Liliha Bakery
Liliha Bakery is most famous for its coco puffs, a choux pastry filled with chocolate pudding and topped with chantilly that’s attained icon status, but the haupia-filled malassadas are a delight.
Coated with powdered rather than granulated sugar, reminiscent of a typical filled doughnut from the Mainland, the malassada’s haupia filling is richly coconutty, thick, and improbably elegant. The Liliha malassada is on the larger side, which gratefully allows it to accommodate such a generous serving of haupia. The bakery doesn’t offer plain malassadas, but that’s okay — the filling was the best part. My only real regret of this visit was not also ordering the liliko‘i (passion fruit) malassada.
If you are plotting out a route for your crawl, note that the new location of Liliha Bakery not only has a bathroom, it has a big, clean bathroom, which can be hard to find at bakeries (yet necessary while chugging water in the Honolulu sun). Plan accordingly. 580 N. Nimitz Highway
The Insta-bait: Kamehameha Bakery
Kamehameha Bakery is famous for its poi-glaze donuts, inspired by the traditional Hawaiian staple of taro root paste. The fried confection has a rich purple color that reveals itself when you bite or tear off a piece. Kamehameha doesn’t fry to order, but the sturdy dough sat well.
If you want to go for the Instagram gold, order some of the daily malassada specials, too. While the orange and strawberry malassadas were marred by a chemical taste, their artificial hues look great on camera. (When I texted a pic of the neon pastries to various friends, it elicited a number of “wow” responses.)
Pro tip for malassada-crawlers: consider stopping in to Thắng’s French Coffee & Bubble Tea across the parking lot for an avocado smoothie, or some other green smoothie to counterbalance all the dough. 1284 Kalani Street
Best Atmosphere: Zippy’s
Before entering the Zippy’s in Makiki, Kathy explained that this local chain is beloved for its cheap meals of local comfort food and for providing an all-day hangout for grandparents. Inside, the bright and sunny dining room was quietly humming with chatter from tables filled by the retirees Kathy told me to expect.
Once upon a time you could only find malassadas at Zippy’s locations that housed an accompanying Napoleon’s Bakery, leading to some confusion. But the chain now fries malassadas to order at all locations. They come unfilled, dusted in plain or cinnamon sugar, and emerge hot and wonderfully light. While they’re a bit smaller than at other shops, they do come three to an order.
Besides, Zippy’s is an essential restaurant to visit if you want to understand Hawai‘i. You shouldn’t leave without a malassada. 1222 S. King Street
Hillary Dixler Canavan is a senior editor at Eater.
Special thanks to Kathy YL Chan