Stacks Pancake House, the slowly growing local chain that started in Dana Point, has cornered the market on Hawaiian-style breakfasts—morning meals that still see pancakes and eggs, but will also inevitably involve Spam and Portuguese sausage. The rabid success of the original has since bred one in Mission Viejo and another in Irvine. Arrive around 11 a.m. at any Stacks location on a weekend and a line already snakes all the way to the cashier.
It’s the same at Plumeria Cafe By Stacks in Laguna Niguel, which, for all intents and purposes, is also a Stacks. Of the four, the queue there is the most manageable because it’s the newest. And almost all of the greatest hits are on the menu. You can order the Captain Mac Nut French toast here, four egg-soaked King’s Hawaiian bread triangles wearing a crusty armor of crushed macadamia nuts and Cap’n Crunch cereal—a wondrous explosion of texture and custard sweetness that’s the mini-chain’s most coveted breakfast item. And, just like at all other Stacks locations, the Benedicts here start with poached eggs sculpted into a too-perfect dome and come in options that include shredded Kalua pork as well as Canadian bacon.
For lunch, there’s a loco moco with a patty thick enough to be called a Hamburg steak. And if you order an egg combo, you’re going to want a scoop of sticky rice as a side, especially if you opt for the salty corned beef hash as meat. But unlike at Stacks, Plumeria Cafe doesn’t just offer one side item with the meal; it offers two. You definitely want the pancakes as your second side, if only as a delivery device for the whipped butter and the coconut syrup, arguably the Stack chain’s most inspired invention.
This syrup, which isn’t as cloying as maple but is also creamy to boot, is a distillation of not just coconut flavor but the spirit of the Aloha State. Pour it in copious amounts, drenching everything in sight: the French toast, the crepes, but especially the pancakes. Right now Plumeria doesn’t yet offer this addictive tropical ambrosia in squirt bottles like the other Stacks do. Instead it doles it out in small thimbles, of which eaters will need at least two for every flapjack.
There are other noticeable differences. The service at Plumeria Cafe is still trying to find its footing. Drink orders get routinely forgotten. And though the service staff operates on a numbered placard system to bring out orders, different people usually come up to you asking whether they’ve delivered everything you’ve ordered. Most often, the answer is no.
Plumeria’s kitchen crew, however, seems to be in lock step with the rest of the chain. The home fries look and taste exactly as they do at the other branches, cut into quarter wedges with one side so well browned and crisp it borders on burnt but stops just in time. An omelet comes out uniformly yellow if slightly overcooked, the half-moon engorged with cheese and the protein of your choice. Opt for the Portuguese sausage omelet at Plumeria and it’s topped with a fanned-out avocado and a spoonful of tomatillo salsa. The huevos rancheros here is also just as the other Stacks do it: The fried egg rests on a pre-fried tostada disk, the ranchero sauce doused over the top is as mild as gazpacho; and the refried beans comes on the side along with a scoop of Japanese sticky rice. But Plumeria, to its credit, has included a packet of soy sauce to apply to the rice—a welcome addition none of the other Stacks knew it needed.
The “Island Chilaquiles,” which is unique to Plumeria’s menu, is essentially the same dish as the huevos rancheros down to the rice and beans and soy sauce packet. The only difference is that it utilizes tortilla chips and includes a ton of moist and wispy Kalua pork that might as well be carnitas. The dish is more breakfast nachos than true chilaquiles, but that’s fine: Plumeria Cafe, like all the others in the Stacks family of restaurants, is the brainchild of an Indonesian restaurateur named Nixon Tanuwidjaja. He started out in Los Angeles as a student, moved to Hawaii, came back with accumulated knowledge on how Hawaiians do breakfast and built an empire from it.
On the Stacks website, you’ll notice that Tanuwidjaja has traded in his batik for a flowered Hawaiian shirt, but it only takes one taste of that coconut syrup to realize that without breakfast innovators like him, we’d be forever stuck in an IHOP and Denny’s bacon-and-eggs rut. So “Terima kasih” to him and “Aloha” to Plumeria Cafe!
Plumeria Cafe by Stacks, 23811 Aliso Creek Rd., Ste. 122, Laguna Niguel, (949) 900-6829. Open daily, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Breakfast for two, $10-$25, food only. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.