A visit to Café Makana Lei on Okinawa feels like going home

Cafe Makana Lei, along the picturesque Awase seawall on Okinawa's east coast, is a short drive from both Camp Foster and Kadena Air Base


By MATTHEW M. BURKE | Stars and Stripes | Published: January 14, 2021

Home is where the heart is, the saying goes, and while Okinawa’s quaint Café Makana Lei is set up in the tradition of a small, island-themed teashop, it packs in enough heart to feel like home.

Makana Lei, along the picturesque Awase seawall on the island’s east coast, is a short drive from both Camp Foster and Kadena Air Base. It features delicious homecooked fare, some of which is self-serve, at an affordable price in what feels like the living room of a beloved relative.

Makana Lei’s menu is always changing depending on the day and what’s fresh. The presentation looks like something out of a magazine: colorful and remarkably displayed.

Many Americans driving along the seawall have surely seen Makana Lei many times. Its bright yellow sign protruding almost into the street demands one’s gaze.

The restaurant and bar are bathed in natural light, accompanied with soft-colored drapes, comfortable couches, grandma’s dining room table, a bar with views of the kitchen and a play area for small children. The staff is warm and ever-smiling.

On a cold midweek day in January, the menu was simple: a fried fish fillet or a sweet chicken stir fry. Each came with rice and salad for 700 yen, about $7. The fish, encased in Panko-style breading and topped with a spoonful of tartar sauce, crunched with each bite.

The fish — probably fresh from the Awase fish market — was light and fluffy, a highlight of the meal. It crumbled to the touch yet retained its oils and natural flavors, a delicate thing of beauty. It went perfectly with the generous scoop of jasmine rice and fluffy, fresh greens on the side.

The sweet chicken in the stir-fry was succulent and juicy. It tasted uniquely Hawaiian, even though staff said it was not a Hawaiian recipe. The cauliflower and broccoli florets and the sliced red peppers were cooked to perfection, snapping with crunch in each bite.

For an additional 300 yen, patrons are invited to help themselves to a drink bar that featured coffee, iced or hot tea and detoxifying water filled with refreshing slices of grapefruit.

There was also a salad bar with more fresh vegetables and even a purple leaf that is a staple of Okinawan cooking, lightly tempura fried as a chip.

A piece of homemade cheesecake infused with lime for 200 yen marked the perfect way to end a meal, and very few customers left without sampling the homemade desserts.

The do-it-yourself culture coupled with the comfortable atmosphere make Makana Lei feel like grandma’s house. The dishes available were fairly basic, yet they were flavorful, tasty and made with love.

Staff at Makana Lei said some of the other dishes that are routinely available include curry and a Hawaiian dish called loco moco, which is typically rice topped with a hamburger, a fried egg and gravy. According to its Instagram page, the eatery also regularly offers French toast, muffins and waffles.

The staff speaks English, so ordering a takeout lunch box is no problem. They have limited outdoor seating for the warmer months.

Twitter: @MatthewMBurke1

Location: 3 Chome-47-15 Awase, Okinawa, 904-2172, or GPS 26.31527, 127.83667

Directions: Head north on Route 329 toward Awase, turn right before a McDonald’s, toward the Takahara Post Office. Continue to the Awase seawall. Turn left and find Café Makana Lei up against the seawall on the right side.

Hours: Noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday for lunch; 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. for tea.

Prices: Lunch dishes start at 700 yen. For an additional 300 yen, you can get unlimited salad bar and drinks like coffee, tea or detoxifying grapefruit water. Desserts cost an additional 200 yen.

Dress: Casual

Information: 090-9789-1000; instagram.com/cafe_makanalei

Few head to the exit without trying a slice of cheese cake from Cafe Makana Lei on Okinawa.