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.)


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.


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.

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