Puerto Rican Menu Twists Pop Up at Windward O’ahu


JFirst time trying Happy Rico, so excited to find Puerto Rican food at Windward O’ahu. But what we can’t help but talk about is the contemporary riff of pork pastel quesatacos.

Here, the savory pastel stew is folded into generous corn tortillas, followed by mozzarella, onions, cilantro, achiote, sour cream and cotija, heated on the griddle until the taco has a crisp, cheesy exterior (3 tacos for $10). The result: an intersection of comforting home-cooked Puerto Rican dishes like your friend’s grandma would have turned into savory street tacos, the kind we happily devour late at night.

The Mini Pastel Stew Plate ($10) offers a traditional Hawaiian-style plate of Puerto Rican cuisine: chunks of pork and a tamale-like garnish alongside gandule (pigeon pea) rice with a side of potato salad- mac that mixes purple and white potatoes with elbow macaroni.

Quesatacos next to a mini plate of pastel stew. Photo: Robbie Dingeman

But it’s those quesatacos that send us chasing Happy Rico a second and third time. We show up earlier in the day to ensure more choices and find another favourite: guajillo shrimp tacos (3 for $13) filled with plump, tender shrimp seasoned with the eponymous chili pepper, served with jalapeño cream- avocado, purple cabbage and the street taco trinity of cilantro, onions and cotija.

Happy Rico Surfnturf Pc Robbie Dingeman

Photo: Robbie Dingeman

We also enjoy the surf n turf platter ($16) which adds marinated shrimp ceviche to the pastel ragout, gandule rice and potato-mac salad from the mini version. We share the generous plate, pushing shrimp and sweet marinated onions over fried saltines, a simple but brilliant alternative to tortillas. And prawns and saltines can be added to other dishes.

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The people making these mashups are Kitchen and Life Partners Richard Figueroa and Loretta Tsang, who met while working in restaurant kitchens in New York City. They first worked together in Buddakan, which had a moment in pop culture to host the sex and the city Carrie and Big’s cinematic wedding reception.

Richard Figueroa, Loretta Tsang, Robbie Dingeman

Proud owners of Rico Richard Figueroa and Loretta Tsang Photo: Robbie Dingeman

“We both have culinary degrees,” Tsang says. “Once COVID got there, we both lost our jobs. So we both thought, you know what, I think now is the chance to do something on our end.

Tsang explains that quesatacos are their version of a birria taco, without the consommé cups. “I like salt and I like oil,” she says with a smile. Figueroa was born in the Bronx but after his parents separated, he moved to Puerto Rico with his mother to stay with his family. He returned to New York as a teenager, seeking to play college baseball while working as a cook, then spent years cooking and studying culinary arts at Monroe College. An injury ended his baseball career, but he graduated from culinary school.

Now Figueroa and Tsang are cooking a mix of what they know, what they love, and what they’ve learned about O’ahu Palace. “Trying to mix it with the local style and our touch, just good food. We’re not trying to go crazy,” says Figueroa.

Tsang defers to Figueroa’s Puerto Rican cultural background and his execution of several dishes after years of cooking experience. And Figueroa credits Tsang with coming up with most of their merger ideas. She is from California but they moved to Kāne’ohe to be closer to her sister, who works in marine biology.

Tsang says they researched the Puerto Rican food scene on O’ahu. They learned about the history of the Borinki or Puerto Rican plantations in the islands and became excited about the mix of cultures intrinsic to the Hawaiian food scene. Then they started working on their menu. They quickly noticed a few differences from the Puerto Rican dishes Figueroa grew up with: Pastele turned into a stew. Black olives are preferred over green ones. Hawai’i generally prefers ground green bananas as the pastel filling, while Figueroa uses more of a tamale-style mix of yucca, kabocha, kalo as well as green bananas rolled in paper and then in banana leaves. The mixture gives the filling a more mochi texture.

SEE ALSO: Taste Test: I tried every dish on the menu at Taqueria El Gallo Rosa in Kailua

They first cooked in a tent near the Kāne’ohe hygiene store alongside other food vendors, Tsang says, then saved their money, bought a motorhome and converted it into a truck. food in October with the help of one of the vendors. Now they appear behind Windward Mall on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends on the edge of Waimānalo.

Beyond popular pastel and taco mainstays, rotating specialties include lumpia stuffed with pastel stew and rice (3 for $7), a shakshuka/huevos rancheros mashup, vegan pastels and loaded pastel nachos (10 $).

Robbie Dingeman Saltines Shrimp Ceviche

Photo: Robbie Dingeman

The couple’s varied culinary experiences are evident in the seasoning and creativity of the food. Before the pandemic, Tsang worked as a sous chef at Michelin-starred restaurant La Vara in Brooklyn, where she was inspired by chef couple Alex Raij and Eder Montero, who create Spanish tapas cuisine with Jewish and Moorish influences. “I have to give him [Raij] credit because she was the one who taught me how to make pickled shrimp,” says Tsang. She describes the dish as a ceviche riff using lime juice, cilantro and onions, but marinated to avoid serving raw seafood from a food truck.

The bright Happy Rico logo features a face framed by a pair of prawns with an empanada smile. Judging by the enthusiasm of these two, we can expect more riffs on dishes that mix their styles with new discoveries.

Open Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. or full. Find Happy Rico Thursday and Friday on Alaloa Street in Kāne’ohe (Windward Mall mauka), Saturday and Sunday on the mauka side of Old Kalanianaole Road at Kalanianaole Highway in Waimānalo. @happy_rrrico

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