Taste Test: I Tried Every Dish on the Menu at Taqueria El Gallo Rosa in Kailua
Good Mexican food is hard to find here in Hawai‘i. That's why we had to try 12 dishes at the newest taco restaurant on the island.
Photos: Robbie Dingeman
Complaining about Mexican food in Hawai‘i could almost qualify as its own sport. So, when we had a chance to check out everything on the menu at Taqueria El Gallo Rosa, we chose tasters who would tell is like it is: the blunt attorney; the world traveler with vivid food memories of his grandmother’s all-day cooking of beans, stews and sauces; and our go-to grill guy.
Taqueria El Gallo Rosa tempted us since opening day in October with a commitment to making fresh food daily: tortillas, salsas, seven taco fillings, five quesadillas and a handful of side dishes as well as a slate of drinks that includes four types of margaritas. Our traveler vouched for the authenticity of the red and white metal tables and chairs as well as the made-from-scratch food. The restaurant tweaked some things since opening: switching from table service to counter orders and lowering prices.
The fast-casual taqueria in the strip of businesses next to Foodland Kailua replaced Prima, fondly known for its wood-fired pizzas. Since the menu of 16 food items seemed a little daunting, our host helpfully pointed out that we could trim four quesadillas from our order since those fillings were duplicated in the tacos.
Overall, we liked what we ate and thought that even low-rated items were better than at some other local Mexican restaurants. Here’s our ranking:
12. Original quesadilla ($4)
Mexican cheese folded into a corn tortilla, made better topped with salsa. But it felt like something you could easily make at home.
11. Guacamole and chips ($6.50)
The fresh-cooked tortilla chips were warm and crispy, not greasy, salty or bland. Another solid delivery of a staple, as was the guacamole, simply made with avocado, flavored with tomato, onions, spices and lime from the pico de gallo.
10. Refried beans ($4.80)
This simple dish of refried beans, accented with onion, corn and chicharrón and topped with cheese, was smoky, spicy and smooth. It pairs with the chips or alongside the tacos. It didn’t last long.
9. Vegan taco ($4)
Mushrooms and cilantro boost these creamy vegan refried beans into a tasty option for vegans or for your second or third taco.
8. Chicken mole taco ($3.80)
This chicken—cooked in a dark smoky sauce hinting of the traditional mix of spices, peppers, chocolate and olive oil with pickled onions, cilantro and hoja santa (a Mexican herb with a hint of sassafras)—drew mixed reviews. We liked the layers of flavor but it fell short of the mole of our traveler’s childhood.
7. Nopal salad ($9 or $9.50 for vegan version)
A refreshing, uncommon side dish. Paddles of prickly pear cactus—with the texture and taste of a cross between green beans and okra—are tossed in a lemony vinaigrette with tomato, herbs and onions topped with Mexican cheese.
6. Pastor taco ($3.80)
In this taco, pork is marinated in an adobo sauce with onions. It offered just enough vinegar for a bit of a bite, with onion and pineapple accents.
5. Carne asada taco ($4.80)
Tender grilled steak chunks are tossed with beans, onions and salsa. It’s a tasty classic street-style taco that was competing for top spot of the meaty tacos.
4. Veggie ($4)
The biggest surprise for omnivores: A blend of roasted poblano peppers, beans, creamed corn topped with queso fresco and cilantro makes a creamy, cheesy, comforting taco we’d all order again and again. This reminded our traveler of something from his grandmother’s long-simmering pots.
3. Fried fish taco Baja style ($3.80)
Another must-order taco: fresh fish fried until tender (ono that night), served with cabbage and fresh radish for crunch, with tang from lime and some creamy heat from the habanero mayonnaise.
2. Carnitas Michoacan style ($3.80)
Shredded pork, pickled onion, cilantro and tomatillo sauce nailed the salty-tangy, rich-briny seesaw of taste and texture. The pork arrives simmered and shredded, the Mexican cousin of kālua pig.
1. Corn ribs ($5)
An ear of roasted corn is split into four to five mini “ribs” to nibble, topped with lemon-and-habanero mayonnaise, Cotija cheese and a sprinkle of cilantro. It’s Mexican street corn turned into an inventive snack that we couldn’t stop eating.
Note: Our food bill totaled $60 before the tip and worked out to be a reasonable amount of food for four people with drinks. The taqueria offers two pages of drinks: four styles of margaritas ($7.50 to $9), other cocktails, beer, and nonalcoholic choices that include Mexican Fanta as well as Coke, Jarritos and fruity agua fresca. The atmosphere was fun, family-friendly and fancier than a food truck but still offering a good value for a small but well-executed menu. The owners are working to source local, sustainable and fresh as much as they can. The homemade corn tortillas are gluten free. The juices and syrups in the cocktails also are made fresh.
Taqueria El Gallo Rosa, 108 Hekili St., Kailua, (808)262-8226, noon to 9 p.m. daily.