Mexican Food With Hawaiian Heart

Tiki Morales makes a damn fine taco. It’s messy, for sure — loaded with moist, chunky meat, charred and smoky from the grill, and depending on what you get, gobs of guacamole, cabbage, chili peppers or tomatoes. They’re perfection, and maybe that’s because tacos are the only thing on the menu. You won’t find burritos, enchiladas or fajitas at Tiki Tacos in Kapa‘a.

“Our concept is to be an authentic taqueria,” says Morales, who was born and raised in Acapulco, Mexico, and moved to Kaua‘i 18 years ago. “That means only tacos and no fillers like rice, beans, or chips.”

Morales runs the small restaurant with husband Bard Widmer, and they have a special dance for those who want more than tacos. As Morales thinks about it, a wide grin spreads across her face, exposing a line of strong, white teeth. She sings, “Only tacos, only tacos, only tacos.” Each time her hip and arm jut out like she’s riding a horse.

All joking aside, when Tiki Tacos says it’s spicy, they’re not kidding. The medium salsa may be rated as “burn your face off” by some, but it’s perfect for me. Chilies find their way into everything, including chunks of serranos in the Tiki Fire Asada Beef Taco.

Salsas and hot sauces are made daily, and you can buy them to make enchiladas at home (pint, $5; quart, $10). Today there is a mild salsa made with kava leaves, Tiki Fire Green Sauce and a smoky Red Paniolo salsa.

With a mother who worked full time, Morales spent her childhood with her grandmother, who owned and operated a restaurant, and used ingredients grown on her farm. Her grandmother’s twin sister would come with fresh fish, crab, corn and other vegetables, and Morales watched them make tortillas and cook. As a descendant of the Mayans, Morales draws parallels from her Mazatec heritage — a medicinal tribe known as the Mushroom People — and ancient Hawaiians.

“My grandmother had a friend from Big Island,” says Morales. “They have a theory about the interconnection between the two cultures. The Mayans also had paddlers who went to different islands to trade. That’s why I feel I am from Mexico, but I have a Hawaiian heart.”

Countless meals made from scratch give Morales an exacting palate that grounds her today. She makes tortillas by hand with her own masa blend that includes non-GMO Mayan purple sweet corn. Ultimately, she hopes to make tortillas from corn that she grows. Morales says 95 percent of her ingredients come from Hawaii, and she tries to source from Kaua‘i first. Tiki Tacos only serves 100 percent Kaua‘i-grown beef and lamb. When it’s not available, it’s not on the menu.

“I want to support our local economy,” says Morales. “So, when they have it, we have it. When they don’t, we don’t. Some people don’t understand, but I’m not going to buy lamb from New Zealand when I can get it here.

“It’s difficult and challenging to support the island,” she continues. “The island is a very fragile environment. If we start ordering from other places, the economy will suffer, and the small businesses here will suffer. The big conglomerates will thrive, and we won’t survive.”

Besides lamb and beef, the small menu features fresh ahi or ono, hormone-and antibiotic-free chicken, and kalua pork that’s cooked in an imu. All regular tacos cost $5, and tossed with Tiki Tacos’ signature salt ($7), grilled and topped with caramelized Maui onions, shredded purple and green cabbage, queso fresco, house-made salsa and a drizzle of sour cream.

“One is a super-great snack,” says Morales, “two make a complete meal, and after three, it’s time for a siesta.”

Thick, chewy tortillas barely support a juicy filling, and trying to stay true to an authentic taqueria, Morales only grudgingly provides forks. Lucky for me, she has a few left, as today’s special oozes with goodness. The Spicy Paniolo Beef Taco ($7) is oversized and spilling with chunks of grass-fed steak, Red Paniolo wood-smoked salsa, guacamole, and fresh tomatoes and onions.

“It’s an explosion of flavors in your mouth,” says Morales. “Once you taste the local, grass-fed beef, there’s no going back. It wouldn’t be a Tiki Taco without it.”

Behind the colorful counter, Kirina Cruz and Natali Villalobos cook tortillas on the grill and sing a cappella. Their soprano voices mingle with the smoky scents, and it sounds so clean, I swear it’s coming from a stereo.

“I’ve loved opera since I was very little,” says Morales. “We always say that if you sing opera, or make a beautiful sound, it creates a vibration in the food and makes it more beautiful. It’s not new age. It’s physics. A good wave of energy creates something really beautiful. We feel blessed to have those girls be a part of Tiki Tacos.”

Tiki Tacos, 4-961 Kuhio Hwy., Kapa‘a, 823-TACO (8226). Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Marta Lane is a Kaua‘i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.

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