Po’ipu’s Tortilla Republic brings modern Mexican fare to Kaua’i.

baja-tacos620

Picture 1 of 5

It’s a drizzly night on Kaua’i, not unlike many others, as I make my way through the kauai culinary market at the shops at Kukui’ula in Po’ipu. The wet weather doesn’t dampen the spirits of the people gathered to shop at the stores and brose through the fresh produce available via the market vendors.

The giddiness of the crowd bouys me as I stride, undaunted to my destination: Tortilla Republic, a restaurant and bar specializing in modern Mexican fare. As I wind my way through the pathway, Tortilla Republic’s presence reaches me and pulls me in. I can smell the spices from the food the restaurant (an original tenant at Th e Shops), hear the music right in fronting the Tortilla Republic Cantina & Margarita Bar that’s located downstairs and feel the buzzing energy of the people gathered to take it all in.

Tortilla Republic takes up two stories that are separate, but equally engaging and complementary entities. On the first floor, there’s the aforementioned cantina and margarita bar, where you’ll be able to stop in for drinks and enjoy a lunch menu. At night, the second floor Tortilla Republic Upstairs is open for diners to enjoy the finer side of their modern Mexican menu.

But first: a stop at the cantina. It’s hard not to be influenced by the festivities going on outside; the entirety of Tortilla Republic is open-air, with wrap-around lanai seating, so the happy cacophony from outside flows in. Th is all adds to the ambiance of the margarita bar.

“We have the biggest tequila selection in Hawai’i,” says Sydney Pimental, general manager, as I take a sip of the Purist margarita, a smooth blend of Karma Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, agave nectar and fresh lime juice. On any given day, the restaurant has 100 tequilas on hand to craft any number of margaritas including The Local, Jalapeno and Perfect, Tortilla Republic’s version of the Cadillac margarita.

“We use all fresh ingredients—including our own limes—and we use 100-percent agave tequilas,” Pimental adds.

Diners will be tempted to keep munching on the super-crispy nachos served up with homemade salsa, but, unless you’re gifted with an unlimited appetite, do not fill up before you get The Upstairs.

The second-floor restaurant is large, yet manages to provide intimate seating spaces for guests. The decor is elegantly eclectic; complete with a dramatic “tree” at the bar, comfy yet stylish wicker and leather chairs to sit in and lighting that glows as the night sets in.

The crowd proves that this is a restaurant for anyone who craves some Mexican fare. Th ere’s a family enjoying the tableside preparation of guaca-mole (more on that later), a mother and daughter clinking margarita glasses and even a couple enjoying a romantic night out.

It may not seem like it at first, but the owners, John Halter and Morton Kaag, have thought of and taken care of all the details to ensure diners have the best possible experience at The Upstairs.

Case in point: wrought iron stands adjacent the tables for women to deposit their bags. If you didn’t know what it was, you would miss it, and it fits seamlessly into the decor. If you need it, you cherish the fact that it’s there.

“Our owners believe that ‘a purse on the floor is money out the door,'” Pimental explains with a smile.

I start with some tequila. Bar manager Karl Ellmann presents a flight to show offthe bar’s range. It is impressive. Th e three I choose are all Grand Leyenda organic tequilas: Silver, Reposado and Anejo. Ellmann points out the different notes in the three tequilas, something I’d never noticed before. It’s that level of expertise, and charming generosity of spirit that is a hallmark of the service at The Upstairs.

After warming up with the choice tequilas, it’s time for some appetizers. Chef Mark Ruiz has carefully crafted a menu that stays true to Tequila Republic’s modern Mexican cuisine, while incorporating the islands’ bounty. First up: the Bruselas Fritto (Fried Brussels Sprouts). Presented in a giant curvaceous bowl, waiter Dante Casillas swears that this dish will “make a Brussels sprout lover out of anyone.” He’s right. The roasted greens are tossed with honey, jalapeno vinaigrette, pepitas, cilantro fried jalapeno and raisins. It’s medley of sweet and heat that sings.

The ‘ahi nachos are an obvious reference to the restaurant’s Kaua’i setting. Ruiz manages to get some Tortilla Republic flair in the dish, thanks to the flavors he’s chosen to combine with his sashimi-grade ‘ahi: chili de arbol aioli, crispy onion, cilantro, lime, agave soy reduction all served with crispy flour tortillas.

For pure drama and highlighting of fresh flavors, the guacamole stands out. Prepared tableside, the server wheels a cart of the ingredients up to the table and proceeds to combine avocado, serrano, tomato, onion, cilantro, lime and salsa de mesa in a large stone bowl. Because it’s literally made-to-order, diners can ask for the level of heat to be adjusted.

If you’re wondering what modern Mexican cuisine is, Tortilla Republic Th e Upstairs is happy to educate. Th e basics are there, yet the flavors and ingredients are tweaked to accommodate today’s tastes and sensibilities. Tortilla Republic uses all-natural meats and organic and locally grown produce, as well as seasonal ingredients.

One prime example of this is the Chile Ancho Pesca (Ancho chile-rubbed island catch of the day). Here, Ruiz gets to show off the local ocean bounty within the Tortilla Republic flavors. Th is night, it’s the monchong, that’s served with an herb and mint rice and citrus sauce. Both work to complement the dish well, cooling the heat, yet allowing the chile flavor to sing.

The Fajitas de Pollo doesn’t stray too far from the traditional: a basket of warm flour tortillas is served up alongside a cast iron skillet sizzling with the flavorful sauteed chicken, poblano, tomatoes and red onion. Salsa de mesa, sour cream, guacamole and the house Mexican rice and black beans round out the dish.

Things end on a sweet note with a selection of indulgent desserts. The Chocolate Decadence is one that will make gluten-free diners happy—it’s a flourless chocolate cake with its own Tortilla Republic twist: ancho chile. Th e heat from the chile intensifies the dark chocolate flavor. Temper that fire with some brown butter salted caramel and vanilla gelato.

The Churros are a tasty and fun dessert; served up with chocolate and brown butter salted caramel for dipping. Another must-try: the Local Lime Pie.

As I’m leaving, I ask Casillas, who grew up with his family’s Mexican cooking, to list his menu favorites he loves the Chile Verde (“It’s not my mom’s, but it’s delicious”, he says), Vieiras (seared scallops), El Atun Aguacate (avocado leaf-rubbed ‘ahi) and the Relleno Poblano. Now I have my menu set for a return visit.

2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., Koloa, (808) 742-8884,
tortillarepublic.com