Quickly working in the kitchen of his popular Eastside taqueria, chef Monico Martinez smiles and nods to a never-ending stream of locals who pass by his kitchen window. They flash shakas and shout compliments for a meal well made.
These regulars know when you are looking for a meal with flavors from south of the border, there’s only one place on Kaua‘i that will do — Monico’s Taqueria.
Monico, an Oaxaca native, moved to Kaua‘i in 1993. A foodie since his childhood, he has held various jobs in the restaurant business and took the plunge five years ago when he opened a taco wagon in Kapa‘a.
“We started out as a little taco wagon, and then we went into a little small restaurant where we had three tables inside and a couple big tables outside,” said Kathleen Hernandez-Martinez, Monico’s wife and co-owner of the taqueria. “We would have people sit there and wait an hour to just squish around a little table and literally put their plates on their lap and eat.”
That’s when the couple knew it was time to expand. Three years ago, they moved into their present location at the Kinipopo Shopping Village in Wailua, which includes a larger dining area, outdoor seating and a full-service bar next to a mural of Monico’s native Mexico.
“Seafood always sells the biggest,” Kathleen said. “Fish tacos, hands down, is our No. 1 item.”
And the word is out. This month, Sunset Magazine named Monico’s succulent fish tacos as one of the top 25 road food spots in the West — an honor that took the chef by surprise.
“We are really known for our seafood burritos, too,” Kathleen added. “We only serve fresh fish. We have five or six different fisherman that keep us overstocked every day. The fish we serve today is literally swimming yesterday.”
In addition to its famous fresh fish dishes, this writer loves Monico’s generously stuffed burritos, his delicious chicken mole enchiladas and the spicy camarones ala diabla (deviled shrimp).
Dishes range from $8.95 to $16.95, and the first set of chips and salsa is always on the house.
Quality and presentation go hand in hand for Monico. As he intimately prepares every dish with fresh, local ingredients, his hands-on approach allows him to create little pieces of art with each dish.
“He makes everything fresh,” Kathleen said. “There’s nothing from a can. He makes all of our sauces, rice, beans, guacamole, salsas.”
Monico’s Taqueria is located at 4356 Kuhio Highway in Wailua. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays. For more information, call 822-4300.