I hope you’re sitting down because I think I just found the best Mexican food in Hawaii and I’m so excited.
Whenever I’m on the mainland, I have to satisfy my fix for great Mexican food. On a recent trip, I stopped for street tacos in San Francisco's Mission District and I was constantly reminded of how high the bar is set. Elevated Hispanic food is on the rise on the west coast with perfected expressions of classic flavors starting to command the attention and prices that they deserve.
At Taqueria El Gallo Rosa, Hawaii finally gets a taste of elevated Mexican fare.
Located in the space formerly occupied by Prima in Kailua, they specialize in tacos and quesadillas with fun and interesting sides done really well. If you’re tired of the same five protein options as a taco, burrito, or enchilada on a platter with beans and rice, this is a much welcome change of pace. It’s a mix of familiar offerings elevated with technique, great sauces and top-notch ingredients. You get the sense the guys running this kitchen have cut their teeth in restaurants of a higher tier – it shows in their commitment to quality.
On offer are six different tacos ($5-$6 each): Baja fish, carnitas, al pastor, carne asada, chicken mole and veggie. Each with a distinct flavor profile and the right garnish and sauce for that style of taco. It’s not often that you see al pastor done properly on a vertical spit but these guys aren’t taking any short cuts. I also can't remember the last time I saw mole in Hawaii. Of the six, the standouts were the mole, veggie, and the fish. The mole was unctuous and rich. The condiments added additional layers of freshness and brightness too. The veggie had many more layers of flavor that popped out distinctly but also worked well together. The fish was tender on the inside, crisp on the outside, and the shaved radish contrasted nicely against the inherent sweetness of the fish.
These tacos aren't cheap eats but I’ve felt for a very long time that Mexican food is grossly underpriced when done at a very high level. These tacos, made with house tortillas and well-done toppings, are worth every penny.
Quesadillas are made with queso Oaxaca and run $5 to $9 with original (just cheese), al pastor, carne asada, vegetarian and vegan (mushroom with vegan cheese) fillings.
There are a couple of vegan options with wow factor and they've got me coming back for more.
The corn “ribs” ($5) are a fun play on the barbecue staple sans the sauce. Perfectly cooked sweet corn comes seasoned well and lightly dusted with cotija cheese – A nod to elote or Mexican street corn without the heaviness of mayo. It can be ordered vegan for $1 more, likely without the cheese.
The nopal salad ($8.50) features paddle cactus grilled up and served with tomatoes in a subtly spicy dressing. It too can be ordered vegan and it's one of the dishes I’m coming back for with vegan friends in tow.
When I went in, they told me they were not doing take-out orders after 6 p.m. because they wanted to focus on their dine-in customer experience, which I respect a lot. With that shocking news, I improvised and stopped at Foodland nextdoor to pick up my own take-out containers so I could share the goodies with my friends.
On my next visit, I'm looking forward to the churros with Mexican chocolate dipping sauce and vanilla ice cream, which is expected to roll out soon. I'm also dying to hit up their tequila and mezcal list along with the Diablo Qaxacqueño ($10), a signature cocktail made with mezcal, créme de casis, lime juice, tabasco and ginger beer.
Hawaii's best Mexican food was bound to show up sooner or later, you just have to hop over the Pali to get it.
Taqueria El Gallo Rosa
108 Hekili St.
Daily, 12 - 9 p.m.