Update: Prices have come down since this post was published shortly after the restaurant opened. This version reflects current prices as of January 2020.
I hope you’re sitting down because I think I just found the best Mexican food in Hawaii.
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 was instantly reminded how high the bar is set. Elevated Hispanic food is on the rise on the West Coast as perfected expressions of classic flavors start 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 well — a mix of familiar offerings made from scratch, with great sauces and top-notch ingredients.
On offer are five different tacos ($3.80-$4 each): Baja fish, al pastor, carne asada, chicken mole and veggie. Carnitas tacos, a sixth, top the list at $4.80 apiece. Each has a distinct flavor profile and the right garnish and sauce. It’s not often that you see al pastor done properly on a vertical spit. I also can't remember the last time I saw mole in Hawaii. Of the six, the standouts were the mole, veggie and fish. The mole was unctuous and rich. The condiments added additional layers of freshness and brightness. The veggie had layers of distinct flavor that worked well together. The fish was crispy outside and tender on the inside, and the shaved radish contrasted nicely.
These tacos aren't cheap eats, but Mexican food can be grossly underpriced when done at a very high level. Tortillas are made from corn imported from Oaxaca and soaked, milled and made into masa in the kitchen. The tacos are worth every penny.
Quesadillas run $4 to $7.50 with cheese, al pastor, carne asada, vegetarian and vegan (mushroom with vegan cheese) fillings. Sinchronizadas, aka quesadillas made with queso Oaxaca and two flour tortillas, fun $5 to $8.50.
There are a couple of vegan options with wow factor; they've got me coming back for more.
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.
The nopal salad ($9) features paddle cactus grilled up and served with tomatoes in a subtly spicy dressing. It too can be ordered vegan. This is 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. 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 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.