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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 2, 2010

Kapahulu spot 'a taco truck without wheels'

by Mari Taketa
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Phil Wong, the co-owner of Tacos Ricos, wraps up a carne asada burrito with the works at the eatery’s new location in Kapahulu.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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525 Kapahulu Ave.834-8222

Hours: Noon-1 a.m. Mondays-Thursdays, noon-3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon-midnight Sundays

Prices: $2 per small taco or five tacos for $9; $1 tacos between 3 and 4 p.m. on weekdays; $9 for other entrees

Other details: Street parking only, no credit cards, BYOB

Food: 4 stars for tacos and chicken; 3 stars for other dishes

Service: 2 stars

Ambience: 2 stars

Value: 3 stars

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If you've been to the new Tacos Ricos on Kapahulu Avenue, you know there are just six items on the menu: tacos (your choice of seven meats), burritos (same meats), nachos (see tacos and burritos), roast chicken, shrimp ceviche and guacamole with chips. So why this full review? Because taco for taco, Tacos Ricos is the best taqueria in town. We're talking Mexico City street-style tacos, the kind you get at L.A. taco trucks: small, soft corn tortillas topped with meat, cilantro, onions and salsa. It's the meats that rock, and if Tacos Ricos sold nothing but tacos, its food would get four stars.

But the totality of the experience goes way beyond just tacos. Tacos Ricos is in the old Waiola Shave Ice spot across from the Ala Wai Golf Course, meaning you park wherever you can on nearby streets. Walk inside and the earthy aroma of corn tortillas engulfs you.

The vibe is a combo of deep earth tones, gritty touches like blacked-out glass doors and exposed pipes and, depending on the time of day, either the pulsing beat of East L.A. hip-hop or Mexican movies playing on two TV screens. You order off a handwritten menu board, pay by cash or check, pick up your food and top it off yourself at the well-stocked condiment bar. Two tables, some barstools and a wooden bench are it for dine-in options.

All of which adds up to what owners Phil Wong and his wife, Carolina Garcia-Wong, are going for. "Basically it's like a taco truck without wheels," Wong says. "We're trying to bring California-style taco stands here and get people used to eating those real tacos. In L.A., you go to any street corner and there's a taco shop. At any hour, they're always open, they're always packed. That's what I love about this location — I can open as late as I want."

Open only since January, the place is already on the after-hours circuit for clubbers and bar-hoppers, but through the day it gets surfers, neighborhood residents and transplanted Mainlanders and Latinos homesick for fillings like tripe and beef tongue.

Which brings us back to the tacos ($2 each, five for $9). All are served on 4-inch corn tortillas imported from L.A., warmed to order on a griddle and doubled up for each taco. Meat recipes come from Garcia-Wong's Sinaloan family, with Grandma often cooking in the kitchen. The warmers they're kept in seem to hurt some but don't affect others.

Our favorites: Lenguas (tongue) is the softest, juiciest thing, cubed and pulled and bursting with beefiness. Cabezas (cheek) is equally succulent, with a deeper flavor. Mi Madres, a ground beef studded with corn, shoots out the most concentrated flavor. The carne asada, also mostly ground, is the driest beef but has a nice smoky taste.

The pork doesn't do so well, which is hugely disappointing because that includes carnitas, our all-time favorite roast meat. Twice it's shredded to a dry toughness. That also happens once with the conchinitas, a marinated pulled pork, but in general the pork choices don't deliver as much flavor as the beef (we haven't tried the tripe, which we hear is fried like bacon, or the fish tacos at five for $12).

If you're trying the tacos, you can top them with whatever you like from the condiment bar. You can choose everything — cilantro, diced red onion, raw cabbage, pickled onions, jalapenos, mild green tomatillo salsa, hot roasted pepper-and-tomato salsa, flecks of cotija cheese and guacamole. You can do what Wong says surfers and Texans tend to do, which is douse everything (including the mildly flavored rice) with guacamole, which at the condiment bar is a watery, pureed, weaker version of the one served with chips ($5).

You can do what Wong says many Latino customers do, which is to use only onions and cilantro and eschew salsas totally because they overwhelm the flavor of the meat. Or you can follow this general guide to pairing:

• Beef, chicken and fish toppings generally go with red salsa.

• Pork toppings go with green tomatillo salsa.

• Conchinita is best with tomatillo salsa and fresh cabbage; no cilantro or onions.

• Carne asada needs a little of either salsa because it's drier.

Of the other foods on the menu, the pollo asado rotisserie chicken is a solid winner ($8 for a half-chicken, $14 for a whole, both with corn tortillas, rice and beans for making into tacos), so tender and juicy; and the Mexican-style ceviche ($9), which is like a spicy gazpacho soup with lime-marinated chunks of shrimp, fresh tomatoes, onions and pickled onions tinged with oregano, is zingy and refreshing.

Unfortunately, the corn chips are stale and lackluster, which hurts the nachos ($9), which you're better off ordering topped with a juicier meat than the carne asada we go with. And while other customers seem thrilled with the 3-pound king burritos ($9), for us these behemoths stuffed with rice, beans and your meat and toppings of choice are too goopy and unfocused.

Come for the tacos. Instead of a side of nachos, try one of the Mexican spicy fruits — essentially yellow-green mango, jicama, cucumber or Mexican-style corn sprinkled with a spicy, limey, salty Tajin powder ($2). And you'd be missing out not to get a drink: fresh, pulpy fruit juices; homemade horchata, sweet and rich with rice milk and cinnamon; or a very full-flavored Jamaica hibiscus iced tea made from a mix and tinged with preserved lemon flavor (all $3).

If you've ever been to the old Tacos Ricos, formerly in the 99 Ranch food court, you know this menu is a severe downsizing from what once was. Wong and Garcia-Wong have thrown out the enchiladas, quesadillas, chile rellenos, chimichangas, taco salads, flautas and steak plates to focus on their top sellers. Expect them to come out with a Sinaloan baked potato specialty soon.

We just hope it's as good as the tacos.