In search of the best fish taco in Kailua-Kona

On our many trips to Kailua-Kona, and especially after the kitchen in our house there had to be torn out because of a mold disaster, we sampled the local fare in hopes of finding that sweet spot between reasonable price and taste. My personal quest was to find the best fish taco on the west side of the island, for that’s truly one of my all time favorite meals. Call me one of the true fish taco cod-noscenti or an afish-ionado. Either way, I’m one serious fish taco snob.

I suppose the reason a good fish taco is so hard to find is because there are so many variables in its creation. First, there’s the fish itself and how it’s cooked. As an afish-ionado, I believe a fish should be honored with seasonings, a marinade and then a grill. I think it’s just wrong on so many levels to deep fat fry fish for a fish taco. Save that for fish and chips.

Then there’s the issue of the slaw. Here’s where too much vinegar can assault your olfactory system. And I’ve even had slaw on my fish tacos with mayo. Paleeze! Are you kidding me? Talk about a desperate attempt to fill a tortilla shell. And speaking of tortilla shells, I’m personally a fan of fresh flour tortillas. Granted, there are some good corn tortillas out there, and the corn/flour debate can’t be solved on this page. That’s really a matter of personal choice. But the wrong tortilla shell or one that is just plain stale will ruin the whole concoction. And two barely-cooked corn tortillas to compensate for the fact that one is too feeble to hold up the design is like calling in the Texas Republican Party to make critical thinking recommendations to the Texas State Board of Education’s textbook committee. Two is not better than one. You get my point.

Then there’s aioli sauce. A must. Salsa alone doesn’t cut it for fish tacos. You’ve got to have that last little bit of creamy tang on top to set the taco off just right.

You see my standards are pretty high. And yet, two restaurants in Kailua-Kona do pretty well with fish tacos. The best one I’ve found so far is at the Kona Brewery. You’ll find it on their menu called “Uncle’s Fish or Shrimp Tacos.” They use both a chipotle yogurt sauce and an avocado aioli to top their creation. Down it with a cold Fire Rock Pale Ale, and you’ll start entertaining that permanent relocation to Kona like we did.

The Miss Congeniality award goes to the fish taco I found at Lava Java. You’ll find their fish tacos on the lunch menu under “fresh fish,” and they serve up theirs with a chipotle aioli and tropical salsa. The important thing about their fish tacos is that they grill their fish. And you can’t beat the view, since you’re sitting outside on the fringe of Ali’i Drive and the ocean.

But move over Kona Brewery and Lava Java. Come early September, which is when we move, a new fish taco is coming to town. With the help from a recipe from Maggie’s One Butt Kitchen, I think I’ve got a winner. And of course, I’ve got a playlist for the preparations.

First, the tunes. Since we’re talking fish tacos, we need some gringo south-of-the-border songs and ballads.

  1. Sangria Wine (Jerry Jeff Walker)
  2. Come up Full (Meg Hutchinson)
  3. Goin’ to Acapulco (Calexico and Jim James)
  4. Deportee, Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Nanci Griffith)
  5. Cowgirl in the Sand (Neil Young with Crazy Horse)
  6. Southern Cross (Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
  7. Mexican Divorce (Nicolette Larson)
  8. Take me to the Mardi Gras (Paul Simon)
  9. The Coast (Paul Simon)
  10. Come on in my Kitchen (Red Molly)
  11. Fishing (Richard Shindell)
  12. Oye Como Va (Santana)
  13. Going to Mexico (Steve Miller Band)
  14. 96 Degrees in the Shade (Third World)
  15. Spanish Rose (Van Morrison)
  16. Rosita (Antigone Rising)
  17. Remittance Man (Jimmy Buffett)
  18. Mexico (James Taylor)
  19. Bamboleo (Gipsy Kings)
  20. Mexicali Blues (Grateful Dead)

Now Maggie’s ingredients. The italics show how I altered the recipe when I made it the other night. It’s best to make the various components in this order as well.

Chipotle Salsa:

2 cups seeded and diced Roma tomatoes

2 tablespoons minced red onion

1 tsp. red wine vinegar

1 chipotle pepper (from a can) minced. (At first I had misread Maggie’s recipe as one can. That would set you on fire. I quickly figured it out once I tasted one of those peppers.)

salt, to taste

2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Picante Slaw:

2 cups finely shredded cabbage (1 cup green; 1 cup purple)

2 tsp. lime juice (I used 2 tablespoons)

2 tsp. honey (I used 2 tablespoons)

2 tablespoons minced red onion (I probably used a bit more)

1 jalapeno, seeded and minced (Make sure to use gloves)

2 tsp. chopped cilantro (I used at least 2 tablespoons)

salt, to taste

Lime Crema: (I didn’t use this part of the recipe, although it would be good, too. I made, instead the avocado aioli below as the tangy topping.)

1/2 cup Mexican crema or sour cream

zest from one lime

juice from 1 lime

Avocado Aioli:

¼ c. sour cream

¼ c. Greek yogurt

2 or 3 small Haas avocados

Juice of 1 lime (Add more lime juice to taste)

1 Tablespoon or more of olive oil

1 tsp. Kosher salt

ground pepper to taste

garlic juice from chopped garlic jar (1 tsp.)

Fish:

2 lbs. tilapia

1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used ½ cup of olive oil—I have this thing about olive oil over canola. It’s so much healthier.)

3 tablespoons lime juice

5 tsp. chili powder (I used less—probably 2 tsps.)

1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1 1/2 tsp ground coriander

1 1/2 tsp minced garlic

salt, to taste

8 inch diameter flour tortillas—There were only three of us. Make what you need.

Directions:

Salsa: Combine all ingredients for Salsa; toss and set aside.

Slaw: Combine all ingredients; toss and set aside.

Aioli: Using a food processor, combine all ingredients at high speed until you have a smooth, silky sauce. Add extra lime juice or olive oil to get the right consistency if need be.

Tortillas: On a grill pan heated over high heat, grill the tortillas until grill marks are present. (Maggie said to put them in a lightly damp towel and set aside.) My method is to: Place tortillas in aluminum foil and keep heated in 250 degree oven until fish is grilled. Maggie is a real cook; I’m not.

Fish: Place the fish in Ziploc bag. Combine the remaining ingredients to create a marinade. Pour marinade over fish. Massage marinade to completely coat the fish. (Fish like all of us like a good massage. However, don’t leave fish too long in a marinade that has citrus. It will get cooked.)

On a BBQ grill pan over high medium heat, cook the marinated fish until done. (This will not take long.) Remove to a serving plate.

Put the tacos together with the warm tortillas, slaw, salsa, fish, and aioli sauce. Serve with lime wedges.

For more great recipes, go to http://maggiesonebuttkitchen.wordpress.com/about/

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A Mango Mojito Ganesha Would Appreciate

On the counter sits a Costco box of mangoes. I’m a slut for mangoes, and my husband knows that, so he surprised me with them last week when he did the Costco deed. I was thrilled, but I knew the greener ones in the box would all ripen at the same time. And, since my family isn’t into more adventurous culinary forays like Adzuki Bean Mango Stir Fry with Cilantro Lime Coconut Sauce or even Mango Salsa, on the Fourth I decided to use the mango for what the gods intended—alcoholic beverages. Okay, not all the gods. But I think one in particular would appreciate this recipe.

Mangoes play prominently in Hindu legend. Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity, for example, is often depicted holding a mango. A magic mango, as legend tells, which he won in a competition against his brother, Kartikeya. The parents, Shiva and Parvati, frustrated with the brothers’ squabbling over the mango promised the fruit to the sibling that could go around the world three times and return the quickest. After realizing that a mouse was simply not quality transportation to travel the world three times, and certainly no match for the peacock his brother was zipping around on, Ganesha relied instead on both political and semantic acumen. “Ganesha said that Shiva and Parvati were his parents and were his whole world. He had asked Shiva and Parvati to stand together and had circled them three times and had taken the mango.” Although the lesson here is supposed to be something along the order of wisdom can come from travel or staying home and truly understanding one’s own kin is precious, I’m thinking brother Kartikeya could have used a mango mojito after pulling up his peacock to this type of sycophancy.

But back to mojito mojo. Here’s my novice’s recipe. Realize that I can never leave a recipe alone. I always have to do something to make it my own. I started with a couple recipes on line and worked from those.

1. First, have a good playlist on. Here’s a few of the songs from the list I was listening to at the time of working on this recipe:

Knee Deep (Zac Brown Band with Jimmy Buffet)
Island Woman (Pablo Cruise)
Beach in Hawaii (Ziggy Marley)
Don’t Rock my Boat (Bob Marley)
You Ku’upio (Willie K)
If I had a Boat (Lyle Lovett)
Does Your Mama Like to Reggae (J. J. Cale)
My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii (The Mills Brothers)
Cowboy Boots and Bathing Suits (Jerry Jeff Walker)
Southern Cross (Crosby, Stills, and Nash)

There are more…typically my playlists have about forty or more songs. But you get the idea.

2. Next, it helps to have mint growing in the back yard. I do. A lot of mint growing in a big pot on the patio. Go cut the some of the mint stalks with nice green leaves all the way up. I prepared three mojitos yesterday, so I needed three stalks of mint. When I came in to wash the mint, I noticed some tiny (and I mean tiny) black gnats of some variety. I had to drown their asses, roll the mint in paper towels, and drown their asses again. A black gnat in your mojito just doesn’t say “this is living” to me.
Chop up the mint, but not so finely that it looks like green slime. Nice larger pieces is pretty in the glass.

3. Cut some lime wedges. Take a lime wedge for each glass, split the sucker, slide it around the top of the glass. Set it aside. It’s going to be in that glass soon.

4. Dip the glass rim into a plate with turbinado sugar. I found it didn’t stick perfectly, but just enough to have a bit of sweet here and there on the lips.

5. In each glass, put the equivalent of about five good size mint leaves (chopped somewhat). These need to be crushed in the glass. Of course, a drink mortar (is that what they’re called?) is nice for this. A spoon works too. I used the end of a wooden spatula. One must be inventive when short on supplies.

6. Take the lime wedge and squeeze into each glass. Then drop that sucker in there. Maybe take another half lime and squeeze liberally into the three glasses. I did. I like lime.

7. Mango puree or mango nectar. Some recipes call for mango puree; others call for mango nectar, the kind you get in a can. This all depends on your taste and your access to fresh mangoes. Obviously, given my ripened mangoes, I went for the puree. A blender works great for this. (Plus, if you have some left, put it over vanilla ice cream later.) Drop several tablespoons of the puree into the bottom of the glass. Again, it all depends upon how much mango you want in the drink. Remember, there’s vitamin C in mangoes, so you can’t go wrong here. This is about your health after all!

8.*****Add simple syrup—probably two tablespoons or so to the growing concoction in each glass. (Making simple syrup is a step you’ll want to do ahead of time. Again, that’s why it’s good to have a longer playlist. Simple syrup can be made by mixing 1 cup of sugar and ½ cup of water in a saucepan. Bring it to a low boil, and stir it constantly for no more than five minutes. Cool this.) Some recipes say just add sugar. I’m thinking these people are lazy amateurs and don’t deserve mojitos. Seriously. Make the damn syrup.

9. Fill glass with maybe a half cup of club soda, and fill the glass with ice. Top with a jigger or so of Myers dark rum. Lightly stir. (If you stir too much, you’ll de-fiz the soda. Not good.) You may want to add a bit more soda now. Another idea is to add just a touch of the mango nectar in a can. Now you’re talking best of both worlds! Go for it. YOLO and all that shit.

10. To top off your masterpiece, de-leaf the sprigs of mint leaving some nice leaves at the top—one sprig for each. Take a mango and do a hedgehog slice job on it. What’s a hedgehog slice job you ask? Well, I learned this from a friend who owned a bed and breakfast in Captain Cook. Anybody who’s been around mangoes for a while knows how to do this, but for a mango virgin, here’s how to cut one:

11. Slice on the wide edge, around the pit. If the mango is truly ripe, you’ll be able to twist the mango in half. Taking the side without the pit, make slices the length and cross wise to the skin only. Then flip the mango inside out. Here’s a quick little video to show you just what I mean: Cutting a Mango Hedgehog
12. Skewer pieces of mango onto the de-leafed mint spring, place in the glass and serve smugly. Then sit back and listen to a play list of your liking that takes you to an island in your mind. And make a toast to Lord Ganesha who understood that flattery can prevent you from having to saddle up a mouse and ride it around the earth three times. Good for him.

For some versions of the Mango story:

Stories from Hindu Mythology: Ganesha wins the mango

Indian Stories for Children: The race for the mango