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Kauai Restaurant of the Week with Anne Lee: Tropical Taco

Inside Feature

April 17, 2022

Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: ANNE LEE

Gather Federal Credit Union is supporting its Kauai restaurant community with offering a 3% cash back for Gather FCU Signature Visa card holders or double points for Platinum Visa cardholders either dining in or ordering takeout until April 30.

We headed to Hanalei and met with owner Roger Kennedy at Tropical Taco. This popular restaurant started in a 1964 Chevy step van parked at Pine Trees at Hanalei Bay in 1978. The first owner, Gary Zerilla, started with his grandmother’s recipes for beans and salsa. Mike Williams (now riding that endless wave above) and Roger Kennedy bought the business for $5,000 and took on the legacy of this restaurant, keeping the name, the recipes and the famous Chevy van. Forty-four years and counting, they continue to attract tourists and locals with some of the freshest fish tacos I have ever tasted.

Hanalei Burrito ($18)

Q. How did you get into this industry and why?

A. I mainly got into the industry by wanting to surf and not starve, and to pay the rent. Besides making people happy with my tacos and burritos, I like the interaction with the nice people that come to Hanalei.

Q. Please tell me how the food truck morphed into a brick-and-mortar.

A.We moved to the front of the Dolphin Restaurant on Kuhio Highway as you enter Hanalei town. The health department at that time informed us that the van was not “Y2K compatible” and to either update the van or “find another job.” We moved the restaurant to a brick-and-mortar next to the Hanalei Liquor Store and have been there ever since — with homage to the Chevy van on the wall.

Baja Plate ($19)

Q. Who makes up the Tropical Taco team?

A. First of all, my wife Barb, the keel to our boat, talked me out of selling the business 22 years ago. I would not be in business now without her.

After four decades in business we’re still going strong with new partners: Paul and Gabi Hepburn, their son Victor, and Paul’s son Kyle (aka “Captain Contact”), who catches all of the fresh fish on the menu. Paul, Gabi and Victor are now running the show in the kitchen, and are putting out more orders than I could have dreamed of doing. Kind and hardworking, they are doing great.

Fat Jack ($18)

Q. Other than the fish tacos, what else are you guys known for?

A. We are also famous for our handmade corn tortillas that we import from the Mission District in San Francisco. Thick tortillas fried crisp or warmed up, they really are unique.

The Fat Jack ($18) is a local favorite. It’s a deep fried 10-inch flour tortilla, wrapped around beef, beans and mild cheddar cheese, and topped with lettuce, mild salsa, cheese and sour cream. The beans are cooked fresh every day, as is the homemade salsa. The burrito was filled with fried fish, taro fries and salsa, with a little cabbage mix to make it very filling.

The Hanalei Burrito ($18) is our fresh fish of the day (grilled or fried) with Uncle Shorty’s taro fries, cabbage mix and Baja sauce.

And our popular Baja Plate ($19) features two locally caught fish tacos — beer batter deep fried or grilled — on corn tortillas with Baja sauce, cabbage mix and salsa. It comes with a side of Spanish rice, beans and corn tortilla chips.

Q. How did you come up with the menu?

A. Our menu has only gotten larger when Paul and Gabi stepped on board. I think it has improved with their solid energy and hard work. Shrimp with a grilled pineapple and jalapeño salsa is one of the new items, and Gabi’s flan melts in your mouth.

Q. Tell me about the drinks.

A. Our beer and wine license will hopefully be in the near future. However, you are now welcome to bring in your own.

Q. What makes Hanalei special to you?

A. What makes Hanalei unique to me is the way the weather changes, the waterfalls and, of course, those waves!

Q. Anything else you want to share?

A. Our avocados come from the trees that are on the Waioli Mission House grounds, so our guacamole is truly “holy guacamole!” Longtime friends also give them to us in trade — the barter system still works in this tiny town.

The pandemic changed everything. Now, due to the temporary lack of workers, we are only open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays — unless we run out of food, and that happens often.

Please bring your patience because everything is made to order, one at a time.

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