Friday, January 28, 2011

Okinawan Mexican Tacos - Before The Taco Rice.. Nerd Ramblings

I think some may know about the Taco Rice. Personally occasionally enjoyed one but admittedly never have been a huge follower maybe. Could be I always felt there isn't a whole lot about the flavor profile that lends itself to a surprise. In fact you can easily recreate one by plating a mound of Japanese white rice with ground beef flavored with your favorite supermarket taco mix, some lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sweetened salsa. The accessible and tasty fill it was first quickly spread through the island's military personnel, hungry students and beach goers, and the general blue collar work force. (I was at least in the last three categories at one or more points in my life..) And now we see them everywhere from trendy cafes to family dinner tables.

But well before the Taco Rice, not surprising there were a few popular Taco shops on Okinawa. The fact always felt really random to me, but I later realized it was only one of the many byproducts of post war American influence. To back track, long after WWII had ended, Okinawa still remained under U.S. control until 1972. That's pretty crazy when I think about it now. But anyway the U.S. military still has a strong presence on the island and while Okinawa always had a unique culture and cuisine compared to the rest of Japan, you can imagine there would also be many American influenced specifics also not found elsewhere.

Not sure when the first taco stalls appeared (selling the crispy shell and ground beef filled Tex-Mex variety) but I hear they started out mostly located in towns near U.S. military bases understandably. But I hate pretending to be a food historian when I'm not, so let's quickly fast forward to the present...

King Tacos (completely unrelated to L.A.'s - King Taco, ha) is a very popular privately owned local chain. I'm pretty sure it's the largest, and the original proprietors with humble beginnings are credited to have invented the earlier mentioned Taco Rice. Shown above is a "parlor" where it means (at least in Okinawa) a tiny food operation where you order inexpensive meals on the go. Food Parlor's are usually strategically situated in high traffic areas, near schools, off busy streets. Can be a prefab shack with very basic seating under some shade or occupy a small portion of a building with only an order window.

I'm totally kicking myself for not taking a pic of a single taco but my hands were seriously full this day. The fried crispy shells are curiously shaped not very tall and also with flat bottoms. (which Old El Paso can't really take credit for..).

These were about five-bucks for four. Now kicking myself again a second time for not taking a shot of the tasty hot sauce that was included. But I did of the double order of Taco Rice for the two construction workers in line ahead of me. The individual clear plastic containers were SO stuffed with rice, seasoned ground beef, fresh veggies and grated cheese, that each had to easily have been enough to spread out as two meals (and the friendly guys confirmed).

This bright red sauce (container kinda showing through the bag above) was quite delicious actually. Sweet with Heat. A Tabasco like straight forward hit of heat blended with some tomato and Japanese ketchup for sweetening would be my first guess.

Some description of the funtastic tacos...

First, as I mentioned there's not a lot special about the ground beef mix. Your familiar Lawrys or Old El Paso taco seasoning-ish flavors. What does stand out here though is the locally produced super fresh vegetable toppings. The tomato and shredded lettuce were so packed with moisture. The tomatoes aren't the sweetest but its flavor intensely of TOMATO. The kind that reminds me how flavorless most are that I eat. These cheap snacking gems whether the locals are aware of or not hovers in a strange category of fast food meets farm-to-table in product. One of the fringe benefits of life on the island. Farms can never be far.

The fried-to-order shells are crispy but with little or no masa flavor. The flat bottoms make it stable-on-the-table, but it's really more the consumably friendly Cannoli shape, size and proportions that's genius about them. I don't need to twist my head sideways to eat one, but the way they fit so perfectly into those ubiquitous plastic to-go containers hardly feels like a coincidence either.

Below another King Tacos location I passed by on one of my long bicycle treks. Tried their famous burger too which was also cheap and filling as I heard but had way too much ratio of bread for my liking.

Charlie's Tacos is another famous Okinawa taco shop that claims to have been in business since 1956.

Compared to the value oriented King Tacos, the tacos here are on the high side for what you get but maybe also a bit more artisanally constructed.

The crispy shells also fried to order, the texture and flavor seemed slightly leavened this time. The texture of the shredded lettuce I'm not kidding is akin to fluffy cotton candy. I imagine it's physically impossible to cut lettuce any finer than it is here. The fresh quality tomato is the same Okinawan taco full wedge slice with the strip of American cheese also left whole.

I was curious and tried the sampler which included one each of ground beef, ground chicken, and tuna. (Tuna?)

The house sauce was interesting. Some bitterness of pulverized onions but with some nice flavors of tomatoes and spice heat. Was mildly sweet too.

The Tuna filled was totally snackable if not a bit odd as expected. The ground chicken didn't taste different enough from the beef in my opinion so next time it'll be all beef tacos for me. :)

While I never remembered Tacos ever blowing up in popularity, they were definitely part of Okinawan casual food culture. Also aside from these specialized shops, if you step into a kissaten you'd most likely see a 'three tacos special' advertised next to a Naporitan on the menu.

So while I may have completely failed at being an ambassador to my hometown beloved Taco Rice, those Island Tacos... I think those are pretty darn neat. :)


K and S said...

love taco rice because it the closest I can get to tacos :) you should check out the largest taco rice at my flickr friends page

kaszeta said...

Okay, I'll have to admit, Taco Rice is a new one for me.

OkiHwn said...

No pix of taco rice?

Dennis K. said...

Hi K&S, WOW! Love the photos..
I actually enjoy Taco Rice but probably mostly when in Okinawa when it comes with the taken-for-granted quality veggies..

Hi Kaszeta, you're awesome and crack me up.. ;) A lot of my friends don't know about Taco Rice either. If you can tell I can get lazy when writing posts haha.

Hi OkiHwn, sorry! Not one my whole dang trip! I so completely fail as Taco Rice ambassador.... :P

caninecologne said...

i've never heard of taco rice. sounds good actually! i like the taco shells with the flat bottom. i used that type when making 'spaghetti tacos' for my daughter. it's an iCarly thing.

Dennis K. said...

Hi CC! I've read your spaghetti tacos posts, really cracked me up. I like Taco Rice, it's a great fill. It just reminds me of something I'd eat in a college dorm room, haha. (Though I never experienced living in dorms.)

Mary said...

I totally dig those flat bottomed taco shells!

Dennis K. said...

Hi Mary, I liked that they don't split in half but fold onto itself too. Love the taco shell tech talk, haha. ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memory! My very first taco was in 1972 at a small hotel, Mont Blanc, in Koza City. It was so good, I simply remember it as the best I ever had. The rice flour shells would just melt in your mouth.

Thanks again - Larry

Dennis K. said...

Thanks and nice story Larry! Comments like yours surely make my day and glad I've been blogging. :)

Anonymous said...

Just was wondering if you know for sure if the taco shells were made from rice flour

Dennis K. said...

Hi Anon! No, I can't confirm on the rice flour aspect in Charlie Tacos taco shells (in fact it was first I heard). I'm curious to look into it now though. I'm slated to be back on the island this Winter but hopefully I can find something out sooner. Anyway, thanks for dropping by!