Not Your Typical Tacos
Perhaps it’s the fact that some of the newest bars and restaurants are giving kamaaina access to Mexican flavors like they’ve never had them before, or maybe it has something to do with the dominance of street foods on the national foodie scene — but for whatever reason, tacos are hot, hot, hot in Hawaii and they present a most exciting dining opportunity.
We must, of course, say “muchas gracias” to Mexico for sharing its quintessential food for the masses with the rest of the world — which, in turn, fell in love with these tortilla-wrapped bundles of joy. But no longer does the general public merely associate tacos with Mexican restaurants and a certain Spanish-speaking Chihuahua. Tacos have transcended both culture and class over the past decade, and we’ve seen a growing number of chefs fill those crispy or soft shells with flavors of their own culinary backgrounds — case in point: One of the most popular and pioneering food trucks is Kogi BBQ, a Korean taco truck in Los Angeles — and it is now normal to have gourmet tacos on the menus of the most upscale restaurants.
Hawaii is a perfect example of the diversity that has come about in the realm of munchable tacos, so let’s get to eating them — andale!
THE KAHALA HOTEL & RESORT
One restaurant that elevates taco making to an art form is Plumeria Beach House at The Kahala Hotel & Resort. Though the tacos on the menu are still “fresh, pure and simple” in essence — mirroring the oceanfront eatery’s culinary objective — they are gourmet for their creative use of ingredients and depth of flavor.
“This is actually rustic food, so what a lot of people are doing is bringing it to that higher level in the culinary world and putting different flavors and ideas into the tacos,” explains sous chef David Calvan, who does just that with his mind-blowing Mini Hoisin Barbecue Duck Tacos ($12, dinner appetizer).
“Hawaii is a big melting pot, so I just combined the Asian and local flavors to create this taco,” he says. You’ll find Chinese inspiration in the braised duck itself, while pickled carrot and daikon are reminiscent of Vietnamese banh mi. Calvan even puts a fun twist on the crispy taco shell concept by frying pi wrappers — commonly used in dim-sum dumplings or gyoza — for a new texture. A citrusy Asian slaw both brightens and blends all the flavors, while Sriracha mayo adds a creamy kick to round out the flavor profile.
When having lunch at Plumeria, don’t hesitate to order Island Fish or Pork Tacos ($16). Guests may choose from the fresh catch sautéed with Ewa sweet onions and a secret taco spice mixture — which we can reveal includes smoked paprika — or tender, brined and kiawe-smoked pork that gets a touch of sweetness from being cooked with shoyu and mirin. Fresh taco toppings like tomato and cilantro make the dish refreshing, but don’t be shy when it comes to smearing on a big dollop of the spiced tartar Asian remoulade — it’s divine.
Executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi notes that customers may choose from corn (gluten-free) or flour tortillas for the lunch tacos as well as request a vegetarian version of the dish. He also reminds readers to keep in mind The Kahala’s Complete Prime Rib Dinner To Go this Christmas, so you can let the hotel do the cooking for you. Visit kahalaresort.com/Dining/Holiday-Celebrations for details.
Plumeria Beach House The Kahala Hotel & Resort
5000 Kahala Ave., Kahala
dining reservations: 739-8760
KAHAI STREET KITCHEN
David Yamamoto, the head chef and co-owner of Kahai Street Kitchen, says he’s a fan of tacos because he loves to play around with different recipes and the possibilities are endless when it comes to finding the perfect filling for those glorious round tortillas.
With one bite of the sweet-meets-savory bliss offered in his Kalbi Short Rib Tacos ($9.25), it’s easy to see that he must have had a blast in the kitchen with these bad boys.
To make the tacos, chef David first marinates the short ribs overnight and then char broils them to give them that grilled flavor. He pairs his kalbi-style meat with even more Korean flavors, both in a kimchee coleslaw and gochujang aioli, the latter of which is made with Korean hot chili pepper paste. The bundles of tacos are garnished with sliced onions, cilantro and a mix of cheddar and Monterey cheeses as the finishing touch.
To avoid any unnecessary spill-age of all those taco fillings, Yamamoto purposefully cuts the meat into bite-sized pieces for easy enjoyment. “It’s a fun food and they’re easy to eat, too,” he confirms.
A great time to check out Kahai is this upcoming week because the eatery will be offering a delectable special: Da Monster Taco Salad ($10.25). Made up of shredded crispy lettuce, seasoned ground beef, toasted fresh corn, olives, tomatoes, shredded cheese and fresh jalapenos, this entrée bursts with lively flavors. Break off a piece of the crispy flour-tortilla shell to give the dish a nacho twist, and don’t forget to pile on the guacamole, creme fraiche and salsa.
These are just a few highlights from the menu, as Kahai is known for its high-quality lunch fare served up in a convenient and affordable setting. The inspiration for taking plate lunches to a gourmet level came from the business’ roots, as it started as a catering company in 2006. Kahai Street Kitchen later expanded with the a popular lunch service, which has been going strong ever since. Most recently, the eatery moved from its former Kalihi locale to Coolidge Street in Moiliili, where you can find it today.
Kahai Street Kitchen
946 Coolidge St., Moiliili