A Taste Of Monico’s In Kapa‘a

Al Pastor Tacos with avocado cream sauce

You may recognize Paulino and Faun Hernandez from Monico’s Taqueria, the popular Mexican restaurant in Wailua. Paulino, Monico Hernandez-Martinez’s cousin and right-hand man, spent 12 years cooking there and his wife Faun still works there three nights a week. Eight weeks ago, the couple opened Al Pastor, a taco truck in old town Kapa’a.

Paulino looks smart in his chef’s jacket, and the exacting standards learned at Monico’s are evident as he carefully plates meals in styrofoam takeout containers. “We love Monico,” says Faun, who plans to switch to biodegradable containers. “But this truck is my husband’s own thing.”

Having worked at Monico’s for six years, Faun is accustomed to friendly service. Once you place your order, take a seat at one of the covered picnic tables, and she’ll bring out your meal. If the line isn’t long, she’ll come out to make sure everything is OK.

Al pastor means shepherd-style in Spanish, and in Hawaiian it means huli huli. Paulino starts by shaving pork and soaking it in a guajillo chili marinade overnight. In the morning, he stacks it onto the spit of an al pastor machine and roasts it until it crackles with flavor.

Hernandez shaves off marinated pork. Daniel Lane photos

The signature dish is two Al Pastor Tacos ($10), with a side of soupy pinto beans and Spanish rice. The meat is saturated in a fatty juice that blends with the marinade, and drips down your hand if you let it.

A small menu features pork, steak, fish and tacos de lengua (beef tongue). For vegans and vegetarians, there’s a Garden Salad ($9) with hearts of romaine, and crisp sticks of raw beets, carrots and jicama.

Everything is made fresh every day, including the beans. If you like your food fiery, ask for a free side of hot sauce. Paulino makes a different one every day, and recent blends include a deep-red chipotle, green habanero and today’s spicy serrano.

“We make our hot sauces hot,” says Faun, “and a lot of people don’t understand that. They’ll take the whole container and pour it over their tacos, and then it’s too hot for them to eat!”

I absolutely loved it, and at the risk of masking the wonderful flavors, I found myself putting it on my rice and beans after the tacos were gone.

If Faun knows you like it hot, she’ll automatically tuck a container alongside your meal.

Al Pastor owners Faun and Paulino Hernandez

Faun, a 27-year-old with deep hazel eyes, is more than 50 percent native Hawaiian. Born on the Big Island and raised on Oahu, she came to Kaua’i in 1992 to visit family. “We were visiting my uncle’s house in the (Wailua) Homesteads, and Hurricane Iniki hit,” she recalls. “I remember being hunched in the bathtub. I was 8 years old.”

She was just 15 years old when she met her neighbor Paulino. “Monico brought Paulino over, and he would always say hi to me,” Faun remembers. “He didn’t speak any English. At that time in my life, I was looking for someone to talk to, and he was there to listen!” A smile spreads across her face, and she leans into an easy laugh.

Al Pastor Tacos in Old Town Kapa‘a. Daniel Lane photos

I laugh with her and take a bite of the Fish Tacos ($11), made with mahi mahi. Two generous portions of lightly grilled fish are folded into soft corn tortillas and topped with crisp lettuce and a smoky chipotle cream sauce.

“Monico’s gets its fish fresh every day,” says Claire Keaton, previous owner of the Al Pastor food truck, then named Spice Island. “That’s what they do, and you can taste it. I love these guys and what they’re doing, so when they approached us about buying the truck, we said yes. You want the right person to take over what you’re doing.”

Even Monico gives a wholehearted endorsement.

“Yesterday they came and brought their kids,” says Faun. “They ordered a steak burrito, six tacos and two taco plates. They’re closed on Mondays, and they wanted to eat Mexican food on their day off!”

Al Pastor Across from the Kaua’i Products Fair
Open every day, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Service with a smile. Daniel Lane photos

Fresh fish tacos with chipolte cream sauce