The Hawaiian Islands captivate the American imagination like no other place. Even people who've never been there find their minds wandering speedily over the Rockies and halfway across the blue Pacific, arriving in a land framed by coconut palms and perfumed by plumeria flowers.
For centuries, Hawaii's connection to a vast seafaring trade and exchange network within Polynesia's "sea of islands" shaped its human and culinary history. Colonialism and the convenience of air travel have, in the last 150 years, further influenced island street food.
Why the preceding discursus on Hawaii's past? Because its food is on the move. Two fortunate travelers have brought a small taste of Hawaii's street treats to a small space in a small corner of the Colorado College campus. They're Denver architect (and Springs native) Matt Shea and local restaurant magnate Joseph Coleman, and their new adventure is La'au's Taco Shop.
Pronounced "la-OWsz," it's a Hawaiian word for "stick," and it can have many meanings. In this case, it refers to two: the wooden skewers on which the meats that inspired Shea's recipes are traditionally cooked, and walking sticks, because Shea and Coleman see La'au's as catering to people on the go.
Evoking warm sunshine, gentle breezes and the dulcet tones of the Pacific surf rolling ashore, the tropical flavor imparted by the Hawaiian name doesn't end with the unusual word on the sign. It also finds expression in the food and the airy, colorful interior. Customers queue to the left, approach the counter and slide right as they oversee the customized production of their meal. Square green boxes serve as seats around a few square tables, with additional eating space outside.
Like the seating, the eating is modular and radically democratic. Tacos ($1.50 to $2.15) can be ordered la carte with one of La'au's six fillings: huli chicken, steak, pork, shrimp, mahi mahi and mixed vegetables. Once that decision's been made, it's time to pimp your taco, with toppings including shredded cabbage, green papaya salad, four salsas (mango, corn, pico de gallo and aj Peruano), cilantro, onion, hot peppers and shredded cheese. Those seeking complete meals can opt for a four-taco "set" ($5.50 to $7.75), or choose an alternate substrate of beans and rice ("bowl"), lettuce ("salad") or nothing but wax paper ("borracho").
Easily the best in all of Colorado Springs, the mahi mahi tacos star, twinkling brightly beneath tangy green papaya salad and either corn or mango salsa. Flavorful and juicy pork follows just behind, and pairs nicely with the hunter green aj Peruano. I also like the peanut-marinated huli chicken and the citrus-spiked Argentinean steak.
Bottled beers (Negro Modelo and Bristol selections) and sprightly, house-made margaritas ($3.50) hit the spot, as do shareable baskets of chips and scoops of guacamole. Managers David Beckstrom and Scott Syverson lead a friendly and efficient crew that's keeping Coleman's hot streak going. Together with Nosh, which also opened in 2007, he's demonstrated a versatility for different pitches and price points in his restaurants.
La'au's is a welcome addition to an otherwise tired dining scene near the Colorado College campus. Attached to the Spencer Center and adjacent to the soon-to-be-complete Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center, La'au's offers healthy, tasty tacos at fair prices for the whole city.
La'au's Taco Shop
830 N. Tejon St., #110, 578-5228
Holiday hours through Jan. 18: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Regular hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.