On our day trip to the south and west sides of Kauai during our recent Hawaiian vacation (click here to read about that day), we ended up in the small village of Waimea. It featured a number of little shops and even had a farmers market going on in the shadow of an abandoned sugar processing plant. We were told about a place to have lunch there, but another place just across the street caught our eye and we decided to go there. Here's the story of Island Taco and the lunch we had there that afternoon.
Kirk Marois was a native of Oahu who has been in the restaurant industry for over 25 years. In August of 1998 along with his wife Christine, the Marois' opened Grinds, a full service cafe serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in Hanapepe on Kauai.
It took Kirk Marois 12 years to come up with a concept for a new restaurant that he was planning to open in nearby Waimea. He wanted to have a restaurant that had a Mexican influence by having house-made tacos filled with locally grown meats and fresh-catch seafood, serving them with house-made salsas and sauces. But he didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a Mexican restaurant, but more of an island taco stand. Along with their two daughters, the Marois' came up with the different types of tacos and chimichangas they would serve at their new restaurant. The couple found an open-air place along the main highway in Waimea and opened Island Taco in 2010. Just under a year ago, the couple opened a second Island Taco in the Poipu Shopping Village in the resort city of Poipu on Kauai's south side.
Waimea is a sleepy little village along the Kamualii Highway that takes you to the west side of the island. It has a black sand beach and a long pier that stretches out into the Pacific Ocean. On the town's east side is Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park which was once home to the first fort built by Russians in Hawaii in the early 19th century. Inside the fort was also the first Russian Orthodox church built in Hawaii as well as living quarters for 30 troops, and storage for ammunition and weapons. The red dirt landscape of the park had a number of boulders that outlined the original fort with a Russian flag flying in the breeze coming off the ocean.
We parked just down the street from a farmers market that was going on in an open space near an abandoned sugar mill. We walked down the street to take a look at some of the shops that sold clothing, fruit, and knick-knacks. Now, I was told about a place called the Shrimp Station that has locations in both Kapa'a and Waimea on Kauai as a good place to get some delicious shrimp. But just across from the Shrimp Station in Waimea was Island Taco. I'm a sucker for good fish tacos, so we went there. (see map)
There's not much to the interior of Island Taco - just an ordering counter with the menu on boards next to the counter. There's seating under an awning as well as seating on picnic tables under umbrellas outside.
For not wanting to be known as a Mexican restaurant, it's tough to distinguish between the Mexican influence and the island influence with the food at Island Taco. They feature, of course, tacos, as well as burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and taco salads served in formed taco shells. The stuff they put into the food is definitely Hawaiian from kalua pork, to fresh caught ahi tuna, to teriyaki grilled chicken, to locally sourced beef. They also make their own chips at Island Taco.
The seared wasabi ahi tuna tacos caught my eye right off the bat as did the kalua pork tacos. Cindy was gearing more toward the wasabi ahi tacos, but wanted to have a bite or two of the kalua pork tacos if I got those. We decided to get a couple of the seared wasabi ahi tuna tacos and a kalua pork taco to try. We took a seat at a counter under the awning of the building and waited for our tacos. Cindy had picked up a couple of cinnamon chip samples that were on the counter near the register and she was noshing on those while we waited. Nearly everything is made from scratch at Island Taco and it was a good 15 minutes before our tacos showed up in front of us.
The seared wasabi ahi tuna tacos were filled with chunks of the seared tuna and mixed with cabbage, chopped tomatoes and finished with a wasabi aioli sauce. Cheese normally comes with the tacos, as well, but I told them to hold the cheese on the fish tacos. The tacos were big - somewhat justifying their $12.50 per taco price. I got a side of ranch dressing with the tacos - that I didn't use - and a side of mild salsa that I did use, but only to eat with a side of chips Cindy got with her taco.
The pork taco featured smoked kalua pork mixed with lettuce and tomatoes, but we also decided against cheese on the kalua pork taco. While we both had one of the seared wasabi ahi tacos, we shared the kalua pork taco. All the tacos were served on a freshly made flour tortilla shell.
And the tacos were, well, good. Not great, but not bad. I don't know if they were worth the price we paid for them ($11.50 for the kalua pork taco). But it was something different that we don't usually get on the Mainland. The wasabi ahi tuna tacos had a nice little spicy bite from the wasabi aioli and the tuna tasted fresh and not fishy at all. The cabbage slaw helped balance the taste out between the fish and spicy bite. The kalua pork had that great kalua taste that I like so much, but they were a little salty in their overall taste.
The tacos we had at Island Taco were expensive - it was a $40 plus lunch after getting some chips to go along with some water with our tacos. But everything is expensive in Hawaii so we weren't so taken aback by the sticker shock of the price of the tacos. It's tough - to nearly impossible - to find good seared ahi tuna tacos in the Midwest and I don't think I've ever had kalua pork tacos before this. Island Taco was emblematic of the laid-back aloha lifestyle that personifies the island of Kauai. Were the tacos worth the price? To some, probably not. But it was a nice little place to have a good lunch in Waimea.