Old favorites worth another look
Last fall, it seemed like a new taco or burrito restaurant was opening every few weeks. I strategized that it would make most sense to review the newbies all at once, instead of introducing them individually week after week, after which everyone would be sick of hearing about one more Mexican restaurant.
As logical as that seemed at the time, they kept coming until there were too many to take on all at once. And it's not over: 40 Taco del Mars are in the works statewide.
More recently, two gentlemen reminded me, separately, of two of their favorites: BC Burrito and Baja Tacos. So it was time to return to Taco Hill, otherwise known as Waialae Avenue, anchored by Baja Tacos at the bottom and BC Burrito at the top (with old-timers Azteca and Jose's).
Baja Tacos, a little taqueria at the base of St. Louis Heights, making parking a challenge, comes closest to SoCal's Mexican-run taquerias in quality, ambience and pricing. Two small soft tacos -- with cilantro, onions, smooth saucy guacamole and your choice of beef, chicken, carnitas, carne asada or adobada -- can be had for a mere $3.75. Those with big appetites might need to double up on an order, but it will be just enough for those wise to portion control.
Tostadas are even less, at $3 for beans with cheese and $3.50 for the ingredients above (except fish). Burritos are also available at $3.75 to $7.50.
The best choices are the kalua pork-like carnitas, fish (you might want to hold the mayo) and adobada, slices of vinegar-and-spice-marinated baked pork. Carne asada, in comparison, is mighty bland and isn't much different from local barbecued beef, minus the teriyaki sauce.
Baja Tacos owners Winston and Tracy Gabriel don't believe in the "fillers" typical of Western establishments, so when you order a taco or tostada, it's nearly all meat. The Baja Burrito ($7.50) does include rice if you can't live without it.
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A full complement of bottled hot sauces is available for adding to the stuffed burritos at BC Burrito on Waialae Avenue.
The Gabriels both grew up in Hawaii, but Winston spent nine years living in San Diego, making it easy to travel across the border, where he learned to appreciate authentic Mexican cuisine and, more important, how to make it himself at home.
Even though the tacos are much better than what's usually available here, alone they can't be the reason people risk their lives to get here, crossing busy intersections in dealing with the tight parking situation. The array of salsas on the countertop have something to do with Baja Tacos' popularity. Tomatoes, roasted jalapeños, garlic, cumin and cilantro are blended together with varying degrees of heat. The hottest, made with habañeros, is more like a thick, heavenly curry paste than the liquefied salsas we know. The mildest is the green tomatillo sauce.
When you're ready, wash it down with Jarritos Mexican sodas at $1.75 a pop, or the rice drink horchata, spiced with cinnamon.
BC Burrito was born Big City Burrito in Fort Collins, Colo., and upon crossing the Pacific went through a name change to avoid competing with Big City Diner farther down Waialae.
While BC Burrito has all the standard "Mexican" offerings, it doesn't pretend to have roots South of the border. Here, as the name implies, it's all about the burrito, which through reasons related to immigration, adaptability, commuter culture and convenience has become as all-American as hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and apple pie.
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Tracy Gabriel, co-ownerof Baja Taco, holds a tostada, left, and a Baja plate featuring two burritos, rice, beans and cheese.
Nothing is more American than customization, and like pizza, burritos lend themselves nicely to the individual touch. People line up to choose the size of their wrap, type of tortilla (white, wheat, tomato chili, jalapeño cheddar or spinach), cheese (jack or cheddar), rice and/or beans, fillings, salsa, hot sauce and extras.
Whew! A lot of decisions must be made in seconds, and the perpetually perplexed should really sit down and think about what they want rather than hold up the line. The resulting burrito is thick, at about 4 inches in diameter, oozing juiciness, and although it's wrapped in foil with instructions to "Grab it. Peel it. Eat it. Repeat it," I felt safer with knife and fork.
Fillings such as chicken mole and carnitas, starting with tender shredded canned chicken, bear little resemblance to authentic Mexican fare but are nevertheless a hit with university kids and young families. Prices range from $3.19 for a 6-inch corn tortilla taco to $6.09 for a 12-inch super burrito.
Salsas are fresh and chunky, with options of mild pico de gallo, smoky chipotle and corn, jalapeño, tomatillo and the hottest, salsa de lupe, containing chopped tomatoes, green peppers and onions. Just in case none of this is hot enough for you, dozens of bottled hot sauces with descriptive names like Toxic Waste and Pure Poison await your selection.
One of the biggest hits is the filling of diced, seasoned, skin-on baked potatoes. Try it on a plate topped with cheddar, guacamole squeezed out of a tube, salsa and ranch sauce, and voilà! It's the equivalent of potato skins or potato nachos.