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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 1, 2005

Taquerias a little bit Tijuana, a little bit SoCal

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Tiffany Kalahui of Kahala shares a meal at Baja Tacos with her children Jordan, 7, and Jesse, 3. The Wai'alae Avenue eatery opened in March and makes its own condiments in-house.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Baja Tacos co-owner Tracy Gabriel takes an order from Yara Cortez of Makiki. In the kitchen, one of the primary cooks is a native of Tijuana.
Santa Barbara's La Super-Rica Taqueria was a favorite of Julia Child, and it would be hard for most folks not to become fans of at least one of these inexpensive Mexican-style fast-food eateries. Taquerias have finally started to sprout on our island, to the delight of many cash-strapped students and those spoiled by their south-of-the-border flavor.

These three eateries offer relief if you're craving tortillas with savory toppings and fillings. Be aware that these places since opening have changed to meet the needs of their growing customer base. Initially, I wasn't impressed with meats that were often oversalted or too wet and thought I'd never eat at these places again. On my latest visits, however, much had improved.

You won't find San Francisco-style big burritos packed with rice, beans, cheese and the works. Instead of Americanized versions of Mexican food, they reflect SoCal and northern Mexico cuisine that favor antojitos ("little whim" in Spanish), which are snacks or appetizers a bit like dim sum — such as small, fried, rolled tacos instead of the U-shaped kind. And remember that this food tastes best eaten hot on the spot.

Note: Items listed as plates come with rice and refried beans.

Baja Tacos

  • 3040 Wai'alae Ave., mauka, at St. Louis Drive
  • Kaimuki
  • 737-5893
  • Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. or until the food runs out (often between 7 and 8 p.m.)
  • Limited parking in front lot

Tracy and Winston Gabriel opened Baja's in March and modeled it after taquerias in San Diego and in towns in the Mexican state of Baja California Norte — Tijuana, Ensenada and Rosarito — where Winston learned to cook Mexican food.

Baja's goes through about 100 pounds of chicken, 90 pounds of rib-eye carne asada, and about 70 pounds each of carnitas (roast pork), pork adobada (adobo seasoned) and shredded beef a day, which is the capacity of its refrigerator. You can often see Francisco, a Tijuana native who cooked at Los Jalapenos in Chula Vista, Calif., working with his son Caesar in the kitchen.

Winston says, "This is a taco shop ... you can pick up in less than 5 to 10 minutes, and you're on your way to the beach. ... It's like a drive-through."

If someone threatened to make me eat raw habaneros to force me to choose, I'd have to say Baja's is my favorite overall. The fresh food has character, and they're not afraid to spice it up here. Sopes, which Winston describes as Mexican pizza made from masa (a cornmeal dough), arrive as a hot pair with a soft inside and slightly crunchy exterior piled high with chicken or beef, bean spread, sour cream, lettuce and a perky sprinkle of cotija cheese. Juicy adobada soft tacos have pork spiced just enough to make you sweat comfortably. Baja's also makes a mean chicken enchilada.

Too-salty corn chips ($2.50) like the ones from jumbo-sized supermarket bags don't appeal. But I doubt many order them — for 50 cents more you're on your way to crispy tostada heaven with a choice of carne asada, carnitas or adobada toppings. If it gets too hot, go next door to Tropicana Freeze for shave ice.

The carne asada burrito ($6.50) was tender, thin chopped beef and guacamole with onion, tomato, cilantro and minced green chili, was zesty and a little wet.

Highlights: free house-made condiments (tart and hot pickled red onions, green tomatillo salsa, red Roma tomato salsa and pickled jalapenos with carrots); the adobada soft tacos ($3.75); the chicken enchiladas plate (3 for $6.50), carnitas tostadas ($3).

Best-seller: Everything.

Diego's Taco Shop

  • 2239 S. King St., makai, at Makahiki Way
  • Mo'ili'ili
  • 944-2942
  • Open Mondays-Saturdays 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Sundays
  • Limited parking in back, entrance on Makahiki Way; street parking

  • 719 Kamehameha Highway, makai, at Pu'u Poni Street
  • Pearl City
  • 456-7578
  • Open weekdays 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturdays 10:30 a.m.-to 4 p.m., closed Sundays
  • Parking lot in front

Dante and Elizabeth Dauz are from San Diego, but Dante has family here. Elizabeth's father is from Tijuana and her mother from Mazatlan. The couple opened their first taqueria in Pearl City in January of last year, perhaps igniting the trend, and a smaller King Street location followed in November.

They had a feeling that the food they grew up with in National City, Calif., would do well on O'ahu. These are traditional dishes and also a bit of fusion with a SoCal twist, because San Diego is a border town. Understanding that many people here have a connection to SoCal and know taco shops, Dante explained, "We try to keep a true taco shop menu (with) taco shop prices."

Diego's has some unusual items. Tortas ($5 to $5.35) are hefty six-inch grilled sandwiches, like an unpressed Cuban with bean spread, lettuce, tomato, cilantro, cheese and sour cream, that come with a variety of meat fillings. Burritos stuffed with chorizo or egg and bacon or Spam (both $5) are available. You can get pollo asado (grilled chicken), a little salty for me, in soft tacos, burritos, tortas, tostadas and a salad ($3 to $5.75). Add rice and beans for a dollar more. Menudo (tripe soup; small is $5, large is $6.25) is available on Saturdays only at Pearl City.

The carne asada burrito ($5.40), with chopped, tender beef, had some caramelized crust and was the driest. With sour cream and cilantro, its texture and flavor reminded me of San Francisco's Mission District and was my favorite.

Highlights: Jarritos Mexican sodas ($1.40) in tamarindo (tamarind) and Jamaica (hibiscus) flavors; fried fish soft taco ($3); carne asada burrito ($5.40).

Best-seller: carne asada burrito ($5.40) or anything carne asada (soft tacos, tortas, tostadas, salad, combination plate, fries or chips, from $3 to $7.50).

Taqueria La Michoacana

  • 1666 Kalauokalani Way, makai, at Makaloa Street.
  • Kaheka
  • 955-8799
  • Open Mondays-Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., closed Sundays
  • Limited parking in back; metered street parking

Owned and operated by the Quintero family in addition to Quintero's on Pi'ikoi Street, the eatery named after their home state of Michoacan has evolved into a sit-down restaurant since opening last October.

The menu — now the same as Quintero's — features dishes from all parts of Mexico, explained son-in-law Gabriel Clark, who comes from Chihuahua. Clark said, "I figured that it (a taqueria) would be a good thing, but not too many people came in. It didn't catch. ... I would have preferred it; it would have been a lot better that way."

During the day, La Michoacana offers egg dishes such as huevos rancheros with rice, beans and a choice of corn or flour tortillas ($9.95 to $12.25). Lunch specials with rice or beans and salad or soup ($7.25 to $10.25) feature standards such as quesadillas, tostadas, burritos, tacos and sopes with a choice of ground or shredded beef, chicken or potato. I recommend the soup after trying a hearty fideos sopa (vermicelli soup). Vegetarian options such as chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips in chile sauce) are served with rice and salad ($9.95 to $13.95).

Dinner offers shrimp and fish plus traditional and combination plates ($9.95 to $16.95). You'll get more ambiance here, and you might be served by two of the most charming waitresses I've ever come across. A la carte items include the enchilada ($4.25), tamal ($7.25), burrito ($7.95) and sope ($8.25). Wet burritos are a dollar extra with green or tomato sauce. This is the only place that has desserts on the menu. Menudo ($7.50) and posole (pork-hominy soup, $6.50) are available on Fridays and Saturdays.

In the carne asada burrito ($14.95 dinner plate), the beef was a little chewy and came with onions, and it was the least dry.

Highlights: $2.50 traditional, house-made drinks — horchata (rice and cinnamon) and agua frescas (fresh fruit waters) in piöa (pineapple), lim÷n (lemon) and mel÷n (cantaloupe) flavors; chicken mole tamales plate ($11.95 at dinner); chile rellenos plate ($10.25 at lunch, $12.95 at dinner).

Best-seller: at lunch, steak taco plate ($8.95); dinner, pescado empapelado plate ($16.95), mahimahi wrapped in foil and steamed with tomato, onion, cheese, serrano chile, white wine and olive oil.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com.