We first reviewed La'au's almost seven years ago. Not a ton has changed at Joseph Coleman's restaurant since then. Burritos were added, ingredients were tweaked to make tacos less soggy, and a Boulder location was attempted, but the gist remained the same because it never needed much fixing.
Then it closed a year ago so Colorado College could spend $8 million to renovate the Spencer Center, the 113-year-old former hotel that the Hawaiian taco joint calls home. Now we're back where we started in 2008: Hey, La'au's is open!
And still, not much has changed. You still enter through the back of the building, though there's some sweet, free two-hour parking on Tejon Street for Spencer visitors. The patio is bigger, and its cool, brown color almost looks purple in the sunlight. Large signage is apparently coming later, but for now, you head through an almost unmarked door to find the front counter on the left, dining room on the right, and an accessories station offering steel silverware; toppings like grilled jalapeños, radishes and limes; and a steady supply of delicious house horchata ($2), which leans more toward milk than spice on the spectrum.
There's not a lot of energy to the dining room, and no music when we were there. The open ceiling and wood accents offer some personality, though. Seating consists of a long, skinny counter running down the center, and wall-facing counters. One busy day, this meant we took our number to the dining room and sat down facing a brick wall 18 inches away, which has its charms, I guess.
You can order standardized menu item off of a surfboard or use a sushi-style list to check off options and build a customized burrito, bowl, salad or trio of hard or soft tacos. The paper is heavy card stock, for durability, and includes an option to "Yes, save my order, I get this all the time," which is pretty cool.
There's still a lot of creativity in the long-standing recipes, starting with the mahi-mahi tacos ($10.25). Long cuts of fish sit atop each taco, propped up with napa cabbage, unripe papaya slaw, and bright yellow mango slaw. There's a fun, sneaky heat to each bite. Chewing the papaya with a dense tortilla and bites of cabbage makes for a sore jaw, but the flavors are killer.
A bowl of spicy shrimp salad ($9.95) may be the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen, with its charred peppers, onions and squash; chunky guacamole kicked up with lime and salt; a pico packing more flavor than the tomato squares advertise; and some buttery pink shrimp covered in cracked black pepper. The spicy tilapia tacos ($8.25) are miles ahead of the shrimp in heat, the aggressive little bastards burning like a habanero torch with each bite.
Between the braised pork and Baja steak burritos ($8.25), I liked the pork a little better, though the steak did have a fun curry thing going. The pork combined ancho chilis with a sweet pineapple salsa, offering an unexpected angle on a traditional take. Grab a bottle of Valentina Salsa Picante for a smoky addition. And the tofu ($7.95) is just ridiculous: brown squares in ginger soy-sauce, crispy on the outside and melting on the inside.
Even a plump quesadilla ($7.45) — simple with miso-marinated chicken, all the gooey cheese I could want, and palm-sized slices — stood out, leaving me just tickled we're La'au's-less no more.