The last full day we were on the Big Island of Hawaii, we took a road trip up to the northern part of the island to scout for places to take pictures later in the evening of the full moon rising out of the ocean. However, much of the north and northeastern part of the island was shrouded in clouds that were producing some heavy rains along with some strong winds. It's amazing that we could drive about 10 miles north of our hotel along the coast and the temperature would drop and it began to rain. All the while we could look in the rearview mirror and see sunshine behind us.
We eventually ended up in Waimea and went to a place that we'd read about in some travel books - Tako Taco. Actually, we'd read in a couple books that Tako Taco had closed, but a couple others said that it had re-opened. I figured a Mexican food place in Hawaii ought to have some righteous fish tacos, so we decided to give it a shot.
From what I could gather from doing some research on Tako Taco was that it was originally a small taco shop in Waimea that offered what would be called "Hawaiianized Mexican Food". Actually, their food was a fusion of Mexican, Island and Asian cuisine. A lot of travel books we had read on the old place raved about the inventive nature of their Mexican food.
Tako Taco opened around 2002 and moved to their present day location in 2007 (see map). But they soon went out of business - much to the dismay of locals and tourists, alike. That's when Tom Kerns, a former brewmaster from Oregon, came into the picture.
Kerns' (pictured right) career in the restaurant business began when he worked at McNemamins, a chain of brewpubs in the Pacific Northwest. Kerns eventually landed in the Phillipines where he helped open a brewpub there. Liking the south Pacific lifestyle, Kerns came to Hawaii and opened up the Fish and Game Brewing Company on the island of Maui about 11 years ago. It quickly became one of the more popular destinations for food and beer in the Lahaina area.
Kerns also became a hero to many beer enthusiasts on the Hawaiian Islands when he drafted legislation that would allow brewpubs to sell growler containers (one gallon jugs of beer) and kegs directly to their customers. We noticed a small shack directly outside the Kona Brewing Company that was selling growlers to people when we were there earlier on our visit.
Eventually, the Maui Brewing Company was looking for a brewpub/restaurant to feature their beer and they bought out Kerns and turned the Fish and Game Brewing Company in the Maui Brewing Co. brewpub. Kerns "retired" with his wife to the highlands around Waimea looking for his next opportunity. His goal was to open another brewpub and looked at a number of places around his home in Waimea for a place to do so.
When Tako Taco went out of business, the wheels began to turn for Kerns and his wife, Jayne. The Kerns bought the building and resurrected the old cantina style restaurant with an eye on serving the same style of healthy Mexican/Island food, along with serving some of his own beers. The Kerns bought what was an old motorcycle shop behind the Tako Taco building and began to put brewing equipment in the building. The capacity of brewing in the building isn't huge - their 10 barrel system will brew about 500 barrels of beer annually. But Kerns hopes to grow that part of the business in the future.
Kerns image of taking Tako Taco and turning it into a brewpub came to fruition in August of 2008. However, the signage is sort of confusing as it's both called Tako Taco and also Big Island Brewhaus. Turns out the official name of the place is Tako Taco Taqueria Big Island Brewhaus. Sort of wordy for name of a resturant, don't you think? Either way, the place is open and they offer pretty much the same menu as the old Tako Taco and a number of different in-house brewed beers.
Actually, we tried to get into Tako Taco earlier in the afternoon, but there was no place to park in the rather small parking lot. Given that it was raining, we didn't want to park the car across the road and walk to the restaurant. We decided to drive around for a bit and then come back. When we did get back just after 2 p.m. there was a place to park.
The outside of the building features a bamboo fence that houses a beer garden the Kerns built to help give the restaurant sort of a neighborhood brewpub feel. But walking into the restaurant, it was far from a brewpub atmosphere. It was like they had taken a Mexican cantina and dropped it in the middle of the Pacific. There were a number of tables and chairs all through the place, a small bar upfront with a multitude of beers on tap - not only their own beers, but beers from the Kona Brewery, Stella Artois and Heinekin. For some reason, Heinekin is big in Hawaii. It's sort of an island staple like Spam.
We took a seat at a table near the front counter. Above the counter is the menu for the place (click on the picture for a closer look at their menu). It's not an extensive menu, but it offered a lot of different variations of Island-Mex food. We didn't know if there was waitress service, so we sort of sat there for a moment. Finally a girl behind the counter said, "You have to order up here." Oh, OK. That's fine.
We weren't overly hungry, even though it had been nearly five hours since we'd had breakfast. I really just wanted to try some of their fish tacos. Their fish tacos are fresh catch, usually ono, spearfish or some other light white fish. They came with cabbage on the side and a homemade black bean salsa on the top. I ordered a couple of those.
Cindy always loves chile rellenos, so she ordered one of those. She also wanted some chips and salsa, but unlike most Mexican restaurants on the mainland, Tako Taco charges for their homemade ships and salsa. But that was OK - the chips were very good and very fresh, while the red and green salsas they provided were excellent as well. Both had a hint of heat to them, the green more so than the red.
For drinks, something caught my eye - lilikoi margaritas. Instead of the regular margarita mix, Tako Taco uses lilikoi juice in this variation of the margarita. Since lilikoi was like heroin to me, I had to try one. Cindy follwed suit and ordered one, as well.
And the margaritas were out of this world. I don't know what it is about the taste of lilikoi, but I was absolutely hooked on it. I quickly down my margarita and went back up to order another one. By that time, our food was brought out to our table.
While the tacos weren't overly huge, there was a lot of grilled fish on the double corn tortillas. The cabbage was fresh and went well with the fish. What grabbed my attention was the black bean salsa they put on the fish. Man, it had a spicy peppery taste to it. It almost overpowered the taste of the fish, but it had a really good spicy finish on the tongue. About the time I really needed to take a drink, the girl behind the counter came out with my second lilikoi margarita. The combination of the lilikoi and the spicy black bean salsa was a taste sensation like no other I'd ever had.
Cindy was sort of confused with her chile relleno. Unlike most chile rellenos she's had in the past, it didn't come with a tomato-based sauce on the top. There was chopped lettuce topped with a mild salsa served on the side. She just used some of the red salsa that was provided for our chips. She seemed to like the chile relleno calling it "different".
Between the chips and salsa, the two lilikoi margaritas and the two fish tacos, I was pretty stuffed. I got up to look around the place and I noticed an autographed picture of Elton John on the wall. Turns out he had eaten at Tako Taco at some point in time. I don't know if it was during the current incarnation of the restaurant or if it was back during the previous owner's tenure. Either way, I thought it was sort of ironic that I had eaten in at least two places that Elton John has eaten at before, the other being Raja in Atlanta.
I don't know if the food at Tako Tako was really good or if it was just really different as compared to the usual Mexican food we get back on the mainland. The fish tacos were good, but not overly outstanding. Cindy said her chili relleno was good, but she's had better. The lilikoi margaritas were outstanding - I wish I could find lilikoi juice on the mainland. And the homemade chips and salsa was above average. I liked the atmosphere of the place, but I thought the people working there were a little distant. Overall, it was a good experience at Tako Taco. I don't know if I'd go back there for the food, but I'd crawl back there for the lilikoi margaritas.
(Update - Since our trip to Tako Taco, Kerns has opened his brewpub - Big Island Brewhaus - that also serves the same Mexican food.)