La Tienda Del Sol: Much More Than a Store

April 19, 2014, 2:38 PM HST · Updated April 19, 2:41 PM
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Vanessa Wolf is a former head chef. She offers her frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Maui’s culinary scene.

By Vanessa Wolf

Blink and you might miss it. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Blink and you might miss it. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

South Kihei’s La Tienda del Sol is the Clark Kent of Maui Mexican cuisine: under the radar, quietly typing away at his desk in the back.

Forget the Bruce Wayne flash, this little restaurant is artfully disguised as a small, understated Hispanic grocery store. Hidden on the bottom floor of a two-story retail complex on Lipoa Street, it’s exceedingly easy to overlook, not to mention underestimate.

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Should you find it and venture inside, however, you are instantly transported south of the border and enveloped by the scents of tamarind, cinnamon and other heady spices.

Although the shop sells a wide variety of Mexican sodas, groceries and hard to find imported peppers and seasonings, mostly it’s a tiny restaurant.

The Carnitas Taco. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Carnitas Taco. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The menu is small and simple: tacos, tostadas, tortas and tamales.

We started with tacos.

The Carnitas Taco ($3.15) is succulent, tender and a bit fatty… but hey, it’s pork. What’d you expect? (And arguably, describing pork as fatty is even a bit redundant.)

Topped with a fresh pico de gallo and cilantro, it’s a spot-on and very traditional presentation delivered in impossibly fresh corn tortillas.

La Tienda del Sol offers up a few homemade salsas in a tiny “bar” near the register. The green (hot) tomatillo option is vinegary and light with some after burn, but we most enjoyed the red (“very hot”) chipotle variation. They’re not kidding about the spice level though: it packs some heat.

The Chicharron Taco. Order this early or maybe not at all. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Chicharron Taco. Order this early or maybe not at all. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Topped with onions and cilantro, the Chicharron Taco ($3.15) had a deep, rich flavor, but texturally was quite limp and gummy. Granted, we ordered ours at dinnertime and in hindsight, we’d recommend opting for one of these when they are first fried up for the day.

Nothing quite like a hot, crisp chicharron… or a not-so-fresh flaccid one. Live and learn.

The Tamale ($2.50), on the other hand, was not only our favorite thing on the menu, but a serious bargain.

Filled with mildly spiced shredded chicken, the surrounding masa harina shell is moist and savory. If you haven’t had a perfectly prepared, classic tamale in a while, this alone is worth a stop.

The Tamale: perfecto. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Tamale: perfecto. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Back to the tacos, the Carne Asada ($3.35) also holds tight to tradition with perfectly prepared steak topped with onions and cilantro. Perhaps for its simple, clean delivery and flavors, this was our favorite of the corn-clad options.

Meanwhile, the Fish Taco ($3.35) offers a break from the meat-heavy selections.

Mild, lightly cooked white fish, lettuce, chipotle mayo, pico de gallo and cilantro are loaded inside a double layer of fresh corn tortillas.

The flavors blend well and remain balanced: you can still taste the delicate white fish despite the multitude of ingredients. We could do without the iceberg lettuce (ever), but otherwise this is a very enjoyable bite.

The fish taco. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The fish taco. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Did we mention these tacos are gigante?

The Pollo ($3.35) – or chicken – comes loaded with everything listed above in the fish taco, plus a sprinkling of cotija cheese.

It’s stuffed to the double-layer tortilla gills with every bit providing a different variety of textures and tastes.

It’s heavy duty, and light eaters could make a meal out of just one.

We also gave the Shrimp Ceviche Tostada ($5.75) a whirl.

A crisp fried corn tortilla is topped with a thin layer of chipotle mayo. We’re not sure if that was meant as a protective layer, but it may have worked. The tostada kept its crunch for a while: no mean feat when topped with ceviche.

The Pollo Taco is a meal until itself. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Pollo Taco is a meal until itself. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Speaking of which, over the crispy base is a generous portion of lime-cured bay shrimp, tomato, onion, cilantro and a 100 watt jolt of originality in the form of dried Mexican oregano.

Mexican oregano is to Italian oregano what moonshine is near beer. A bully of the seasoning world, it does what it does best here: knock down the door and take over.

The powerful little herbs seemed to be mostly sprinkled on top, so we picked ours off. Chalk it up to personal preference.

There’s no jalapeño or any real heat to the ceviche, but there is the aforementioned homemade salsa for those who prefer some kick.

The Shrimp Ceviche Tostada is a beauty. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Shrimp Ceviche Tostada is a beauty. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

We’d love the option to add avocado – even for an additional cost – but still found this shrimp dish to be bright, fresh and well worth the price.

The Pollo Tostada ($4.75) is similar, with the same tender, shredded chicken from the taco and tamales making an encore appearance.

Once again, it barely registers on the Scoville scale, so grab some spicy salsa from the bar if you’re taking it to go.

Additionally, consider picking up some TicTacs because there will be no hiding the fact you chowed down on a while lotta raw onions.

The adorable shop/restaurant itself. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The adorable shop/restaurant itself. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

Service from (what seems to be) an extended family is friendly and efficient.

The space itself is small, but cheery; dominated by a hodgepodge of tables providing seating for diners.

La Tiena del Sol is a cash-only enterprise so leave your Visa card and your Hello Kitty checks at home, but be sure to bring plenty of empty belly space for those authentic tacos and tamales.

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La Tienda del Sol is located at 115 E Lipoa Street, Suite 104 in Kihei. Find them open and slinging ceviche from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

 

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