A TRIBUTE TO TACO RICE: The U.S. military's favorite Mex-Oki fusion food
Nothing says fast food in the south of Japan like “tako-raisu!” And 2014 marks the 30th birthday of this signature Okinawan dish, according to local lore.
Not to be confused with “takoyaki,” Japan’s much-loved battered and grilled balls of octopus meat, tako-raisu, or taco rice, is just what it sounds like: South-of-the-boarder-seasoned beef on a bed of Asia’s favorite staple food.
There’s taco rice cheese, taco rice cheese with lettuce, taco rice cheese with vegetables, with or without the salsa – you get the idea.
This Mex-Oki delicacy owes its very existence to the longstanding U.S. military presence here. The Shinkaichi district right outside Camp Hansen’s Gate 1 in Kin Town is the birth place of taco rice, according to the Kin Town Commerce and Industry Association and others.
King Tacos in Kin “is the Okinawan fast food restaurant that created taco rice,” according to its Facebook page. However, it’s not the only eatery in Kin making that claim.
“I think everybody would agree that we’re the originator (of taco rice),” said Parlor Senri restaurant’s Sayuri Shimabukuro. Turns out, there’s a reason for the dual claims.
According to Shimabukuro and others, her grandfather and founding owner of both King Tacos and nearby Parlor Senri, Matsuzo Gibo, began selling the newly created concoction after opening the eateries in 1984. Gibo, 84, has since retired, but the family business still serves up his signature dish.
The lore surrounding how this simple yet scrumptious delicacy came about, however, is as inconclusive as whether a proper plate of taco rice should be served with or without tomatoes.
The idea may have started as a joke among restaurateurs about how the flimsy taco couldn’t possibly satisfy ravenous U.S. servicemen. Some say it was restaurant employee grub that became so popular it was added to the menu, according to Kin Town Commerce.
Another theory is that eatery owners balked at the idea of making taco shells for the American favorite, and sought out a cheap and easy alternative. Turns out they all might be right.
“Tacos had already been introduced to Okinawa by the Americans, but it was more like a snack – not very filling for Americans. And it was something you couldn’t find at a restaurant,” Shimabukuro explained. “Matsuzo decided to substitute the taco shell with rice, which is relatively faster to cook and also filling. Parlor Senri’s customers were 100 percent Americans, and in order for the wait staff to explain the dish, he named it taco rice.
“Original taco rice was just rice, ground beef and cheese because back in the day, people always asked for it without tomatoes,” she continued. “So we just used a topping system at Parlor Senri; you choose what goes on top of your basic taco rice. Taco rice cheese was the most popular then, but now the most popular is taco rice cheese and vegetables.”
So, just how popular is this local fusion specialty, anyway?
For starters, you can find it on the menu at Yoshinoya, the “gyudon” (beef bowl) chain restaurant with more than 1,400 outlets in Japan and elsewhere – but only in its Okinawa eateries. In the 1990s, taco rice even had a brief stint on KFC menus throughout Japan. It’s safe to say that taco rice is the most well-known Okinawan dish internationally.
Also, consider this: Kin is actually the self-professed Taco Rice Town, claiming the title after a hard-fought battle to make the world’s biggest taco rice in 2010. Literally thousands of people joined in to take on the taco rice challenge.
To make the more than three-quarter-ton gut-rumbler, they stated with 683 pounds of rice. They then pilled on 441 pounds of taco meat, 220 pounds of cheese, 194 pounds of lettuce and 106 pounds of tomatoes. Eight local restaurants helped prepare the ingredients.
“I promised myself that I would give the children of Kin Town a dream three years ago,” then Kin Town Commerce chairman, Morimitsu Kuniba, told local media. Organizers had tried in 2009, but Guinness World Records wouldn’t sign off on the deal, saying there wasn’t yet a category for the feat. “We had almost given up when they finally gave us the OK to go ahead with the challenge.”
“On Nov. 14, 2010, with the official judges from Guinness World Records standing by, the world’s biggest taco rice challenge started,” Kuniba said on that gastronomically glorious day. “With the help of more than 2,000 people, we made taco rice that weighed 746 kilograms (1,645 pounds) – a certified world record.”
It just goes to show you that, among other things, there’s plenty of taco rice to be had on Okinawa. So make sure you get your share while on island.
Where to get your taco rice on
The list of Okinawa eateries serving up some version of taco rice is endless – and you should try them all. We dug into our Stripes Okinawa archive of restaurant reviews to come up with this list to help you get started. You can read the complete reviews – and share your own takes on rice tacorias – at: okinawa.stripes.com/search/node/taco%20rice
Sea Side Jet City Burgers
"There are also other things like taco rice, garlic fries, and salad.”
Hours: Monday - Sunday
11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Location: 1-12-12, Chatan, Chatan-cho Nakagami-gun, 47 904-0116
"Intrigued by the taco dog – a creation that combines a regular hotdog into one with the taste of taco rice – I ordered it.”
Hours: Monday - Sunday:
10 a.m.-1 p.m.
A wide variety of takes on taco rice
Hours: Monday - Friday: 11:30 a.m.-midnight
Saturday - Sunday: 10 a.m.-midnight
Location: 2-20-5, Chatan-cho, Nakagami-gun, 47 904-0116
"Okinawan spicy yakisoba and taco rice.”
Hours: Sunday - Thursday: 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Friday - Saturday: 6 p.m.-4 a.m.
Location: 3-2-2, Mihama, Chatan-cho Nakagami-gun, 47 904-0115
"I’ve tried taco rice here, as well as Okinawan soba.”
Hours: Monday - Sunday: 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., 6 p.m.-midnight
Location: Chatan-cho, 47
"The buffet also includes ... taco rice.”
Hours: Monday - Sunday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Location: 368 Sunabe, Chatan-cho Nakagami-gun
"The menu offers selections such as a cheese plate, taco rice, tenderloin steak dinner.”
Hours: Monday - Sunday: 3 p.m.-1:30 a.m.
Location: 10F Dai Ichi Hotel, 2-8-1 Yogi, 904-2174
Vegie Cafe Shanti
"Try the ... taco rice, piled high with fresh, crunchy julienned vegetables.”
Hours: Monday - Saturday: 11:10 a.m.- 7 p.m.; Sunday: 11:10 a.m.- 7 p.m.
Location: Just a skip and a jump from Shuri Castle.
Makishi Public Market
"... one of the many restaurants that offer Okinawan fare, such as sea snake ... and taco rice.”
Hours: Daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m..
Location: 2-10-1 Matsuo, Naha
Local standards and specialties
Hours: Sunday - Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday - Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Location: 1046-2 Yamakawa, Motobu-cho, Kunigami-gun, 47 905-0205
Oblee in Yomitan
"My family ordered two kid’s taco rice sets for 390 yen each.”
Hours: Monday - Friday: 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday - Sunday: 7 a.m.-11 p.m.
Location: 497-1, Aza Furugen, Yomitan-son,
Nakagami-gun, 47 904-0314
More than just taco rice
Hours: Thursday: Noon-9 p.m.; Friday - Sunday: Noon-9:30 p.m.
Location: Chuo 1-3-15, Okinawa-shi
"They also have beef sandwiches on a fresh hoagie bun, tacos, taco rice ...”
Hours: Monday - Sunday: 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
Casa de Tacos
"The taco meat ... is made with Casa’s own recipe.”
Hours: Monday - Sunday:
11 a.m.- 11 p.m.
Location: Uruma-shi, 47
Made-to-order taco shells and special sauces.
Hours: Monday - Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Location: 717-8, Ishikawa Higashi-onna, Uruma-shi, 47 904-1111
Ramen in Uruma
Home of the “taco egg roll!”
Hours: Monday - Sunday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Location: 255-15, Akamichi, Uruma-shi 904-2245
Pizza House Jr. in Uruma
"The menu also has … taco rice, Mexican doria, Texas beef stew …”
Hours: Monday - Sunday:
10 a.m. 10 p.m.
Location: Aeon Gushikawa Shopping Center, 303, Maehara, Uruma-shi, 47 904-2235
Big Dip Makiminato
"Why not try the Okinawa Tacos Dog, a play on a postwar favorite, taco rice.”
Hours: Monday - Sunday: 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
Location: 5-5-6 Makiminato, Urazoe City
TACO RICE RECIPES
HOMEMADE TACO RICE
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• 2 minced cloves of garlic
• 1 finely minced red chili pepper
• 1 small minced onion
• 1 tablespoon chili powder
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 1 lb of ground beef, turkey or chicken
• 1/4 cup tomato sauce
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• 4 large shredded iceberg lettuce leaves
• 1 diced tomato
• 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
• 1 cup salsa (optional)
• 4 Tablespoons sour cream (optional)
• 2 cups cooked white rice
1. Heat oil in a skillet, add onion and chili pepper and sauté until onions are soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook another minute.
2. Add chili powder and cumin. Cook for about 30 seconds until aromatic. Stir in ground meat, breaking up large pieces with a wooden spoon.
3. Stir and cook the meat thorough. Stir in tomato sauce and soy sauce and cook until warmed. Season to taste with salt.
4. To plate, add 1/2 cup cooked rice to a bowl or plate. Top with lettuce, seasoned meat mixture, cheese, tomatoes and, if desired, salsa and a dollop of sour cream. Repeat.
Makes four servings
EASY TACO RICE
• 2 cups cooked rice
• 1.5 lbs ground beef
• 2 packets taco seasoning powder
• 1 chopped onion
• 1 tomato
• Shredded taco cheese
Brown the beef and onion in a skillet. Add taco seasonings and mix well. Layer rice, ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, and cheese in a casserole dish. Top with a dollop of sour cream, if you wish. That’s it!
PRESSURE-COOKED TACO BEEF
• 2-3 lb roast (cut doesn’t matter -- buy whatever is on sale)
• 3 large potatoes, peeled & diced
• 1 packet taco seasoning mix
• 1 cup water
Put all ingredients in the pressure cooker and lock down. Cook for 30minutes once it comes up to full pressure. Remove from heat and allow to cool down. Once rocker stops, remove lid and chop up meat and potatoes. Spoon into heated taco shells, add your favorite toppings, and enjoy!
• 5 Lb. lean ground beef
• 2 1/2 c. chopped onions
• 1/2 tsp. black pepper
• 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
• 2 tablespoons minced garlic
• 1 1/2 tablespoons crushed dried oregano
1. Heat the pressure cooker over medium-high heat. Crumble beef into pressure cooker and break it up in small pieces of uniform size. When red color disappears, add 1/2 cup water, the onions, black pepper, red pepper flakes, garlic and oregano. Lock the lid in place.
2. Bring to 15psi over high heat, immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to stabilize and maintain that pressure. Cook 8minutes. Remove from heat and use the natural release method before opening the lid. Transfer the cooked meat mixture to a large colander and drain thoroughly. Cool and divide into 5 portions of approximately
3. 1 pound each, label and freeze flat for later use.
VEGETARIAN TACO RICE
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 (16-ounce) package firm tofu, crumbled
• 1 cup chopped onion
• 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 3 tablespoons soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
• 1 tablespoon chili powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
• 4 cups steamed Japanese rice
• 2 cups shredded lettuce
• 2 cups chopped tomatoes
• 1 can (6-ounce) extra-large pitted California Ripe Olives, drained and sliced into thirds
• 1 cup salsa
1. Heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch frying pan over medium heat. Add the tofu, onion, and garlic and stir fry for 5 minutes.
2. Add the soy sauce, lime juice, chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper to the fry pan and stir. Cook for 3 minutes, then stir in the cilantro. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.
3. Spread 1 cup of steamed rice on each plate. Top with the seasoned tofu. Then top with some lettuce, tomatoes, and olives. Finish with a spoonful of salsa and serve.
Makes four servings
– Rachael Hutchings, www.lafujimama.com
CROCKPOT TACO CHICKEN
• 1 packet taco seasoning
• 1 cup chicken broth
• 1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts
1. Dissolve taco seasoning into chicken broth.
2. Place chicken breasts in crockpot and pour chicken broth over.
3. Cover and cook on low for 6 – 8 hours.
4. With two forks, shred the chicken meat into bite-size pieces.
5. To freeze, place shredded meat into freezer bags with the juices.
6. Press out all the air and seal.
TACO RICE CASSEROLE
• 1 pound lean ground beef
• 1 x 1¼-ounce package taco seasoning mix
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 x 10¾-ounce can condensed tomato soup
• ½ of a 10-ounce can tomatoes and green chilies, about ⅔ cup
• 3 cups cooked rice
• 1 x 8-ounce can whole kernel corn, drained
• ½ pound pasteurized process American cheese, cubed (2 cups)
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1½ cups cottage cheese
• 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
• 2 cups grated cheddar cheese, divided
1. Cook beef in large skillet until meat is no longer pink, stirring to crumble. Drain off fat.
2. Add taco seasoning, salt, soup and tomatoes and green chiles. Cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes to blend flavors.
3. Add rice, corn and cheese. Heat until mixture is hot and cheese melts.
Makes six servings
TACO RICE BELL PEPPERS
• 1 lb of ground cooked taco meat
• 2 cups white rice
• 4 large bell peppers, halved and seeds removed
• 1/2 cup shredded mild cheddar cheese
• 1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
• 1/4 cup chopped freshly chopped cilantro
• 1/4 cup chopped spring onions
1. Cook rice, cool then mix in cooked taco meat.
2. Heat oven to 400°. Spoon rice mixture into bell pepper halves. Place the stuffed peppers on a baking sheet. Sprinkle peppers with shredded cheese. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until bell peppers are tender and cheese has melted. Garnish with fresh cilantro and spring onions.