Okinawa joint puts spin on popular food, taco

Okinawa joint puts spin on popular food, taco

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

So, you fancy yourself a taco enthusiast?

Back home, they know you by name at Chipotle, and your local Mexican joint has your food ready before you even step up to order.

Flour, corn, hard, soft, Mexican, American … you’ve had them all. But, what about an Okinawan taco?

It is safe to say that tacos are now a big part of Okinawan food culture. A quick Google search returns over 50 taco joints on the island, and the number seems to keep growing.

61 years ago, well before Google, there was one place people went for the ever-popular dish – Charlie’s Tacos.

The place where it all started is within a 15-minute walk from Gate 2 of Kadena Air Base. Charlie’s, which now has two locations, has been a restaurant where locals, mainlanders and foreigners alike have been lining up for more than 60 years. The autographs and photos posted on the walls attest to its long history and name recognition.

“My father opened this place as an A-sign restaurant, which meant an approved place to serve food to members of the U.S. military,” said Yoshinori Katsuda, the current owner of Charlie’s. “Tacos were just one of the menu items he had among others such as steaks and desserts. But his taco become so popular among Americans that the restaurant turned into a taco joint.”

Yoshinori’s father, Naoshi, learned about tacos from Americans stationed in Okinawa while he was a manager for another A-sign restaurant. Hard-shell American tacos were a menu item he turned to, as he was looking to introduce something unique to the restaurant.

Upon launching his own restaurant, the father went further and tried to create a unique taco of his own design.

“Seeing people struggle with ingredients falling off crispy shells, he tried to make a different kind of shell,” said the son.

That is how the chewy, soft shell, a signature of Charlie’s Tacos, was invented. Although it has the shape of an American crispy-shell taco, his shell, made of corn and flour, was firm enough to hold ingredients, but soft enough to not crack under pressure.  

“You can say it was a unique mixture of hard-shell American taco and soft-shell Mexican taco,” said Yoshinori.

According to Yoshinori, tacos they serve today are basically the same as they did 61 years ago. His father’s efforts to further perfect a unique style of taco can still be found in the food. The spicy salsa that comes with the taco was something Naoshi invented by using Shima-togarashi, an Okinawan hot pepper. And choosing ground beef with less grease or adding barley to the shell seems to reflect his motto, “healthy and casual taco.”

Back then, when payday would come around, many U.S. service members would line up outside Charlie’s, and some would say “I’ve had all kinds of tacos around the world, but these taste the best,’” according to Yoshinori.   

The unique tacos, which now include beef, chicken or tuna, came to be recognized among Americans as “Charlie’s Taco” after Nahoshi’s nickname.

Eventually, the hype reached Okinawans, who were intrigued by Americans waiting in line. And the history of Okinawan taco took off with Charlie’s taco.  

After 61 years, Charlie’s taco is still loved by Americans and Okinawans. People continue to come back for the unique texture and flavor they’ve loved for so long.

“There was an elder American who came back here with his wife, decades after working on Kadena Air Base. He was looking for Charlie and his taco,” said Yoshinori.   

And Charlie’s taco is acquiring new fans too.

“It was super good. I think the taco and the shell are better than back at the states,” said Mr. Cook, a California native from Camp Foster, who tried Charlie’s taco for the first time.

Charlie’s Tacos

Closed on Thursday except when it is a holiday in Japan.
3 tacos for 690 yen (including of tax).

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