The Facebook Specials can’t be beat at Kohala Burger & Taco (KBAT). It could be the Sizzlin’ Carne Asada Fajitas or tacos during 2-Fer Tuesday… or the Swizz Burger (original recipe since 1962) or the savory Cowboy Steak Won Ton—all made using grass-fed beef. And don’t forget the cool and refreshing Whip drinks and shakes (even a bacon one)! Chef/owner Cary Peterson is the man behind all the fun and we caught up with him recently at his popular Kawaihae Shopping Center eatery. He also shares the recipes for the yummy “street tacos” and salsa that he served at last year’s Taste.
Chef Cary grew up in North Lake Tahoe, Calif. where his family owned a small chain of Mexican restaurants. He started helping out in the kitchen in his early teens and worked for 10 years, learning the ropes of the restaurant biz. Peterson got his first job as chef in 1991 at the former Tres Hombres Beach Grill at Kawaihae Shopping Center. After a nine-year career with one of the nation’s largest restaurant chains, Peterson moved back to his hometown and purchased his childhood haunt, the “World Famous” Char-Pit, which was established in 1962.
The landmark Char-Pit is where Cary “learned the secrets and recipes used to create the nostalgic flavors of the great 50’s-style drive-in burgers and shakes.” He says the menu selections at Kohala Burger & Taco are a reflection of “those truly classic items.”
Kohala Burger & Taco opened in November of 2010. The vision for the restaurant was to “utilize fresh and local ingredients,” especially Hawai’i’s grass-fed beef and the abundance of fresh, line-caught, wild fish.
Chef Cary explains, ” I wanted to create a restaurant that would provide top quality food, great value, and accurate and speedy service. Kohala Burger & Taco is the juncture where my years of Mexican food and hamburger experience meet. Right here at Kawaihae Harbor, where it ALL began…Kawaihae Harbor is the original landing place of the vaquero to Hawai’i. These Mexican Cowboys were brought here in 1823 by King Kamehameha III. They taught Hawaiians the art of cattle ranching. Originally called ‘espanola,’ the Hawaiians pronounced this as ‘paniolo.’ The name stuck, and is the common reference for cowboys in Hawai’I today.”
Q and A
Q: How would you describe your cooking style and please give some examples.
A: Simple and straightforward. I like to cook food people like to eat everyday, not just for a special occasion. I don’t use a lot of herbs or garlic, not that I’m against these; however, I feel the main ingredient should be the main ingredient. Most of my food has only a few ingredients. The key is being precise with the way things are cut and the way flavors go together, while never trying to hide or mask natural flavors.
Q: Why do you use grass-fed beef (GFB)?
A: I strive to leave a small environmental footprint and local beef requires much less energy and resources to process and deliver. I also think the flavor is great for the type of food I do, which is very simple and straightforward. I prefer to use a sweet bun for my burgers and the earthy flavor of the beef goes perfect with it. From a health standpoint, grass-fed beef is a no brainer; it’s antibiotic and hormone free!
Q: What are your favorite GFB cuts and why?
A: I think the tri-tip is a great cut and very versatile; this is what I use for my Sizzlin’ Carne Asada Fajitas.
Q: Do you let patrons know on your menu they are eating GFB?
A: ABSOLUTELY! I’ve built my concept around it!
Q: What other local food products are your favorite and why?
A: We feature various local, line-caught, fresh fish in our fish tacos and we make a hand-cut, local tomato salsa daily.
A: Are you participating in the 2012 Taste?
Q: Yes! This is hands-down the best food event on the island-organized, fun and informative.
Kohala Burger & Taco is located upstairs at Kawaihae Harbor Shopping Center, on the Akoni Pule Hwy. 270, Kawaihae, 808-880-1923, www.kohalaburger.com.