Kona coffee and fish tacos? Really?

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Kona coffee and fish tacos? Really?

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island
Jan 29, 2010

When I go to Duke’s Canoe Club, I don’t think twice. I order the fish tacos (2 for $12.95). Two soft flour tortillas stuffed with grilled ahi and topped with sliced cabbage. On the side, scoops of fresh-made salsa (finely diced and laced with cilantro), guacamole (blended and a tad too much mayonnaise for my perfection) and sour cream (good ‘ol regular sour cream). I added dollops of all three to my fish tacos. The result: messy and yummy. Even though I enjoy the same dish time after time, last night’s order was particularly good. And I know why.

For the next five paragraphs, I am going to segue now to coffee. But hang with me. There is a connection.

One thing I learned attending the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition last year is that practice makes perfect. I do not mean to imply that the more years coffee farmers spend tending to their crop—weeding, feeding, picking and processing—that the better their coffee will taste, although I suspect that’s true. From what I’ve heard, the myriad of variables related to growing coffee—soil nutrients, rainfall, timing, roasting and marketing—are far too great to predict a farmer’s success at the cupping event. In 2008, Kona Rainforest Coffee earned a third place finish—it was their second year of competition.

When I asked owner Robert Barnes if that gave him an edge in 2009, he laughed. Then, he shook his fist a couple times and splayed his fingers as if he was throwing dice. Mixing gambling metaphors, what he meant was it was all the luck of the draw. Instead of carefully selecting his best green beans for the 50-pound bag required for entry—judges told him they spotted that a mile away—he simply filled a bag without any inspection and submitted it.

Another way of saying what I mean might be that excess leads to expertise. Rather than beat around the bush any more, I’ll get to the point.

I am talking about the professional coffee cuppers, a.k.a. judges, who are tasked with choosing a favorite from the dozens of entries at the annual Kona Coffee Cupping Competition. The more they sample coffee—and let me tell you they slurp hundreds of times during a single day’s event—the better they get at detecting what makes up the essence of each slurp of coffee. Much like a sommelier with wine, they can detect hints of citrus, earthiness and floral. They can recognize sweet and sour in the same cup of coffee.

The bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers: The Story of Success. One theory the best-selling author posits this time around is that success comes at about the 10,000 hour mark. That is, practice something for 10,000 hours and on the 10,001st hour, you will achieve success. Now, I know that sounds glib, and I am certainly reducing his entire book down to a couple sentences, but we’re talking fish tacos here, right? And not perfection of their creation, but the enjoyment of eating them.

Here’s the thing: the more I eat, the better able I am to discern what makes that particular serving delightful. And they get better and better.

On a trip to Hawaii Island to tour Kona Rainforest Coffee, I stopped at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill for lunch and Huggo’s on the Rocks for dinner.

At Jackie Rey’s, they created their fish tacos (1 for $10.95; 2 for $15.95) with grilled ahi, cheddar cheese, greens, tomatoes and strips of tortilla strips. On the side, a nice choice of three sauces: sour cream chipotle, sweet and sour chili aioli, and pineapple salsa. What’s more they served their creation on oversized, eight-inch flour tortillas—reducing the whole messiness factor. End result: Good+.

At Huggo’s on the Rocks—with my toes in the sand just the way I like my feet and watching the sun set over the ocean—I ordered the Mahi Taco Plate. Two corn tortillas ($12.95) filled with spicy mahi-mahi (grilled). Sides of chipotle aioli sauce, salsa, and tomatilla salsa verde complete the dish. End result: Repeat visit definitely required.

I spent a couple weeks in the frigid Midwest over the recent holidays. Now, sub-zero temperatures, snow and all the clothing that brings with it—gloves, scarves, boots and puffy jackets—do not make think fish tacos. I associate fish tacos with salt air, sand between my toes and sunshine.

And yet, when I met friends at Houlihan’s Restaurant and asked, “What do you recommend?” my friend said, without missing a beat, “Fish tacos.” And, later, when I visited the restaurant’s website, sure enough, the featured dish was just that—fish tacos. Go figure. After a moment’s hesitation, I did what I usually do when I spy fish tacos on a menu. I ordered them.

They were made southern California-style—with chipotle mayo, battered and fried tilapia, cabbage, pico salsa and honey-cumin dressing—and you know what? Maybe I was homesick for Hawaii, but they were absolutely delicious. (Aside: At $8.95, they were a bargain, accompanied by chips and salsa, to boot.)

The way I figure it I spend approximately one hour with every fish taco experience. I have no idea how many fish tacos I’ve eaten over the years—many are my husband’s creations—but I’ve lived in Hawaii for 10 years. If I eat one order a week—on the high side—I’ve consumed 520 orders of fish tacos. If most come two to a plate, that puts me over 1,000 actual fish tacos. So, I’ve got 9,000 more to go before I am an expert. Want to go out for dinner? 

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