Karaoke, like a visit to the Tonga Room, is one of those cheesy yet captivating pick-me-ups that adds a bit of sparkle to life's otherwise prosaic complexion. There's something very Walter Mitty about getting up in front of a group of strangers, grabbing a microphone, and launching into "I Get a Kick Out of You" while an unseen orchestra provides musical backing unavailable in the standard shower stall. Notes seldom heard outside the African veld emerge from your oral cavity, and so what? Applause is inevitable -- the karaoke crowd is unhesitatingly supportive, rusty pipes notwithstanding -- and with a rush of performance-fueled adrenaline you understand the addictive attraction of a life in the show business. Just the other night I watched a group of friends step into the spotlight, tackling a selection of standards at the Kaleo Cafe, a Sunset District coffeehouse with more to its name than espresso and muffins. Among other things, the Kaleo offers karaoke singing every Friday night from 7 to 10 p.m.: In a space not much larger than the typical studio-apartment living room a parade of adrenaline addicts wrap their tonsils around "Born to Be Wild," "Heartbreak Hotel," "New York, New York," and other tunes from the venue's impressive 1,400-item karaoke book. (The entire song list -- including 400 Filipino entries -- is available at www.kaleocafe.com, in case you want to bone up before show time.)
The Kaleo was opened last June by several members of Aloha Pumehana 'O Polynesia, a Hawaiian dance troupe based in South City, and as such its personality is distinctly Polynesian. Dominating the space is a 12-foot papier-mâché waterfall abloom with plasticine gardenias and rubber ferns. Technicolor tapestries, black-stone geckos, and other artworks adorn every wall, nook, and cranny. Tall bursts of foliage grow in every direction. Lampshades the color of a Tahitian sunset dangle from the grape-hued ceiling. Two glass cases are filled with Island instruments and artifacts -- stone clappers, shell trumpets, nose flutes, and the like. Leis, bracelets, hair picks, picture books, and gift packs filled with guava jelly, macadamia nuts, and other tasty exotica are available for purchase. You'll also find two computers with Internet access, a little corner table with games for the kiddies, and a cozy mezzanine with big comfy armchairs, an abundance of wicker, and a chessboard for the intellectuals. Out in back is a pocket-sized patio adorned with tiny white lights, birdhouses, umbrella'd tables, and matting straight out of Gilligan's Island. But despite the riot of color and kitsch, between karaoke sets the mood is as soothing and pacific as the ocean linking the islands to the shoreline 34 blocks west.
An excellent reason for breaking into song is that "Kaleo" means "the voice" in Hawaiian. But on a deeper level it also means "hangout" -- a place where one's voice, thoughts, and opinions can mingle with those of friends and family. That kind of mingling has been part of the coffeehouse ethos since the Turks brought caffeine to Vienna in 1683, a culinary rendezvous from which we can trace three centuries of biscotti, beatniks, discourse, diatribes, girl-watching, journal-writing, and the constant, connective aroma of freshly roasted espresso beans. Beyond all that is the pleasant notion of a lazy afternoon spent chatting over a fragrant cup of java -- a notion preserved and celebrated at Kaleo.
Most coffeehouses nowadays serve little more than muffins and the occasional bagel along with the steamed milk and house blend, but at Kaleo the gustatory options range a bit wider. The teriyaki chicken bowl is a homey, satisfying stew of crisp broccoli, carrot, and bell pepper, bits of smoky-sweet chicken, fluffy rice, and a hint of ginger, offered on an attractive purple-green art nouveau saucer. Sandwiches are prepared with uncommon care -- the bread is warm and toasty and the slices of cucumber add a nice crisp texture to the whole -- even if the turkey and the ham are standard cold-cut issue. The best sandwich is the Kaleo chicken, in which hot, crisp breast meat interacts with slightly sweet teriyaki sauce, leafy lettuce, and crunchy red onion. The garden burger, on the other hand, is gummy, spice-free, and an uninspiring option for the dedicated vegetarian. Saving grace: You can get it (and all of the sandwiches) on one of Kaleo's impeccably buttery, incontestably flaky croissants.
The pastries, which mostly come from Just Desserts, include a buttery coffee cake with a generous ribbon of sweet, moist blueberry; a fine apple pie that's crisp, not too sweet, and enclosed in an exemplary crust; and an apple caramel crunch cheesecake that's creamy, dreamy, and light-textured, like a baked apple with plenty of whipped cream. This being a coffeehouse -- and a whimsical Hawaiian coffeehouse at that -- the coffee-drink options are numerous and eclectic. The Hapa-Mocha comes with white chocolate foam, the Honolulu with hazelnuts and caramel foam, the Hawaiian Shamrock with Irish cream and mint, the Banana Mocha with French vanilla and banana chips, the Banana Split Mocha with whipped cream, sliced almonds, and a cookie, and last but far from least, the Pohaku with chocolate chips, nuts, whipped cream, and three marshmallows on top. We settled for the relatively staid Coco-Mac Mocha, a mixture of coconut, macadamia, and whipped cream that tasted not unlike a slice of coconut cream pie, and the "Kaleo"-mel Mocha, a sweet, buttery concoction of coffee, chocolate, and caramel. The house-made soda drinks aren't as successful; they're mostly sweet and watery with no more flavor than a cellophane-wrapped Starburst, although the Maui sunset, jazzed up as it is with passion fruit and kiwi, is undeniably refreshing.
In case you're busy Friday night, Kaleo also hosts Blitz Chess every Wednesday and an irregular schedule of live Hawaiian music to go with the waterfall and the nose flutes and the teriyaki bowls and the Pohakus. The vibe is thoroughly aloha pumehana -- warm and welcoming. What we have here, in other words, is not your typical scone-encrusted coffeehouse, not when karaoke is a weekly inevitability.