Santacruz Taco Co. Launches New Dishes This Week
Go for tasty tacos, the pokeviche, three new dishes and an absorbing map of Mexican regional cuisine at this Downtown restaurant.
Nachos are not on the menu. But with the bright pokeviche to serve on a chip, we didn't miss it.
Photos: Brie Thalmann and Christi Young
The hardest part of grabbing something at Santacruz Taco Co. may be finding it. We had heard the popular Mexican pop-up vendor had moved into a brick-and-mortar location at Kukui Plaza. Not the residential towers, as the security guard informed us as we wandered, puzzled, past the storefronts along Pali Highway, but in Kukui Plaza Mall. Just up the shallow staircase facing Fort Street Mall, past the convenience store with a sign purporting the “Best musubi in Hawai‘i,” we found Julio Gutierrez Santacruz’s cheery eatery.
Santacruz moved to Hawai‘i from Arizona about 14 years ago for an IT job. But in 2012, he began cooking family recipes for local diners and soon had a following at farmers markets. In August, the father of two and his family opened Santacruz Taco Co. downtown. Bright red and green walls featuring Santacruz’s own artwork surround dark wood tables. Stools sit at the kitchen counter for diners wanting an omakase experience (more on that later). We pulled up a few barstools around the high table facing the kitchen and perused the menu.
Santacruz’s family is from the Sinaloa area of Mexico, a coastal region which, his hand-painted map on the wall tells us, is known for items including smoked marlin and shrimp chicharron tacos. Here, he sources about 75-percent of his ingredients from local farmers and producers, including beef, fish and the produce. The menu focuses on offers seven different types of filling for tacos enfolded in house-made corn tortillas ($4 each), four for quesadillas ($8 each) and some intriguing entrées including the oft-talked about braised oxtail in chile pasilla ($13) and seafood à la diabla ($15), mixed seafood simmered in a chipotle tomato sauce. Most items are served with tasty rice and beans.
Three more items will be added to the menu Tuesday, Jan. 29: chile relleno; Bistec à la plancha for steak lovers; and a shrimp aguachile, tiger prawns in a spicy citrus sauce with tomatoes, avocado and cucumbers served with chips. He would eventually like to bring in more seafood cocktails and other dishes that are not as familiar to local diners.
The House-made sauce and salsa bar included a spicy avocado and pickled onions.
Those were not yet ready for us to try when we popped in last week. So, we started with the pokeviche (market price), a local name for the traditional raw fish cured in citrus. Local fish is cut in sizeable cubes and tossed with tomatoes, onions and cilantro in a citrus sauce and served with house-made tortilla chips. The acid of the tomatoes and fresh bite of the cilantro and citrus paired nicely with the fish on the crisp chip. But the star of the dish for me was the smoky chile Morita sateh (sauce) drizzled on top. The Morita chile pepper is just one of the ingredients Santacruz has to pick up in annual shopping trips to Los Angeles.
We headed to the self-help sauce and salsa bar and loaded up. It’s on a table right in front of a rack of hot sauce bottles that, Santacruz called out as we neared it, “Is just for decoration!” I heard great things about the creamy spicy avocado option, but I’m a huge fan of tomatillos, so the zingy sauce made from the fruit was my favorite. The fiery hot red one is no joke. Spice averse diners, you have been warned.
Lengua, or beef tongue (left), and house-made chorizo (right) are among the seven types that are $1 off on Taco Tuesdays.
The entrées are fairly straight forward. It is the complexity of flavors that stands out. House-made chorizo starts slightly sweet, but spices add a depth that, as my friend noted, makes you want to keep eating. The lengua, beef tongue, was soft and nicely seasoned, but Santacruz noted when I ordered, the cachete, braised beef cheeks, is more flavorful. We also opted for the “Enchiladas 2 Moles” ($13), three shredded chicken enchiladas topped with a green mole, a red mole and Cotija cheese, as well as oxtail in chile pasilla. Don’t expect the fall-off-the-bone style of oxtail you’ll find in soup. But the meat is tender and hearty and when paired with the rich chile pasilla sauce, rice and beans, was a perfect dish for a rainy Friday. (Or a chilly Saturday, as proven when my husband polished off the leftovers the next day.)
Oxtail in chile pasilla.
Churros are not on the menu, but when my friend wistfully asked, Santacruz whipped up a batch of cinnamon-and-sugar-dredged fried treats. He used to make his own house-made version of the crunchy, pillowy doughnuts, as well as tres leches cake, but took them off the menu when diners proved too full for dessert. You can still ask for the churros, just in case Santacruz has a few on hand. Don’t expect the Oaxacan chocolate dipping sauce—we ate almost his full supply.
Santacruz doesn't offer churros on the menu, but says you can always ask. We did!
I’m planning to return for seats at Santacruz’s counter. In between cooking, answering phone calls for takeout orders and answering questions, he explained the counter is for diners who want his version of the omakase experience, where you are served whatever the chef feels like creating. In Santacruz’s case that could mean octopus, seafood dishes or crickets, the latter of which I only caught of glimpse of as he whipped out a bag of the Kaua‘i-grown insects that are a major protein source for countries across the world.
Santacruz Taco Co. is BYOB. So if you want something a little stronger than horchata, stop by a grocery store first. Tacos are $1 off every Tuesday. The restaurant also caters.
Open Monday through Saturday. 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday and the first and third Fridays of the month; 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and the second and fourth Fridays of the month; 4-8 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. 50 S. Beretania St., Ste. C-118B, (808) 304-7096, santacruztacoco.com.