Huli Huli Chicken Tacos
In recent years, I've become more conscious in writing about food and cultures that are not my own. For me, that hasn't translated to limiting my recipe scope, but understanding more where the food comes from, what it means to people, and trying to honor that as much as possible. I'm not sure how much of it comes across in my posts and recipes, but it's definitely in my thoughts as I tackle dishes I'm planning on sharing here. That has led to me searching out more ingredients and processes that are true to a recipe's origins, but I'm also aware I haven't been everywhere, know everything, and am sometimes naive and prone to mistakes—everything's a learning process, right? Sometimes I'm led down wrong paths, and the first time I cooked and shared a post on huli huli chicken that I had based off of a recipe I saw in Cook's Illustrated, commenters let me know that it wasn't totally faithful to its Hawaiian origins, although it was delicious in its own right. I keep coming back to this recipe that coats chicken with a sweet pineapple glaze, and it felt really fitting to resurrect it in this taco form for a Tiki-themed Meatwave I hosted recently, but I'm left wondering if it's time I drop the "huli huli" label and give it a name that doesn't have representation complications attached.
For now, I think I've stuck to the huli huli name because, from what I can tell, there really isn't one defining sauce recipe. Different folks may have different recipes, but in general, a sweet glaze is a defining trait. So Cook's Illustrated may not have made too big of a stretch when they devised this sauce that brings together pineapple juice, brown sugar, soy sauce, ketchup, garlic, ginger, and sriracha and boils it down into a thick glaze.
Huli huli chicken usually means halved birds, and in my first post about it, that's exactly how I cooked it, but I made my own variation here for tacos and used only skinless, boneless thigh meat, which grills up nice and juicy to make a perfect taco filler. Before grilling, I gave the thighs a seasoning of ginger powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper to introduce some flavors that were in the original recipe that were imparted via a brine instead.
For the taco toppers, I decided to go with two accompaniments, the first being a red cabbage slaw. Red cabbage is a bit tougher and crunchier than green, so I'm not a huge fan of it for a slaw that's going to be eaten on its own, but I've found when used as a topping, red cabbage adds an extra crunch that makes it stand out more than green. I devised a red slaw recipe for some barbecue chicken tacos awhile back that I loved, so used almost the same thing here, but just changed up some small details to flavor it to pair better with the sweet chicken that had a slight Asian influence—mainly subbing sesame seeds for the celery seeds and adding a little sesame oil into the dressing.
The second topper was this pineapple pico, which was just my standard pico de gallo recipe with pineapple thrown in. To be totally honest, I had made this for a different recipe that same day for tuna wonton nachos, but ended up using it on these tacos too and it worked so well, I thought it needed to be part of the end product I was sharing.
Flavor is my primary consideration when choosing thighs over breasts, but it also helps that thigh meat is very forgiving when cooking. Unlike breast meat, which dries out very quickly if overcooked, thighs can take some punishment and still be incredibly juicy. So I often don't monitor temperature much when cooking thighs, instead going for ideal searing and just ensuring everything's cooked through before removing it from the grill. For this chicken, I got a good sear on the meat before brushing it with the glaze and allowing that sauce to bake down over the heat of the coals.
After the chicken was done, I diced it up and then went back to the grill and heated up my tortillas. I'm usually a homemade tortilla man, but I saw these street taco sized flour tortillas at the store and they seemed perfect for my use here and they ended up decent enough, for store bought at least.
Then to serve, I put some chicken in each warm tortilla, then topped with the slaw and pineapple pico. A dish like this causes some internal conflict in my current mindset—it's a cultural mashup, which makes it feel oddly American at heart, but neither base culture is my own, but also, its just tastes damn good. For trying to make something that fits into a Tiki-themed party, this comes with all deliciousness you want with a fitting side of cultural appropriation baggage that's easy to forget about after a couple extra-rummy drinks. The sweet chicken had a festive, fruity brightness with savory and sharp underpinnings of garlic and ginger that melded extremely well with the crunch and tang of the slaw and freshness of the pineapple pico. I'm not sure if "huli huli" either sets wrong expectations here, or honors its origins, so I still have some stuff to work out in that respect, but that personal journey at least has a very delicious road to follow.
Huli Huli Chicken Tacos
- Yield 6-8 servings
- Prep 45 Minutes
- Cook 10 Minutes
- Total 55 Minutes
- For the Salsa
- 3/4 cup diced roma tomatoes (about 2 medium)
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 3/4 cup diced pineapple
- 1/3 cup finely diced white onion (about 1/2 a small onion)
- 2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 tablespoon finely diced seeded jalapeño (about 1 small)
- 2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice from 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon freshly minced garlic (about 1 medium clove)
- For the Coleslaw
- 1/2 large head red cabbage, finely shredded on a mandoline or by hand
- 3/4 cup red onion, finely minced (about 1/2 a medium onion)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- For the Glaze
- 18 oz pineapple juice
- 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon Sriracha
- For the Chicken
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 16 street taco-size flour tortillas (about 3-4" in diameter)
- To make the salsa: Place tomatoes in a fine-mesh strainer set in a bowl, season with salt, and toss to combine. Let tomatoes sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Discard liquid, transfer tomatoes to bowl, and add in pineapple, onion, cilantro, jalapeño, lime juice, and garlic; toss to combine. Season with salt to taste. Set aside.
- To make the coleslaw: Combine cabbage and onion in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and 1/4 cup sugar and toss to combine. Let stand 5 minutes. Transfer to a large colander and rinse thoroughly under cold running water. Transfer vegetables to a salad spinner and spin dry. Alternatively, transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet lined with a triple layer of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel and blot mixture dry with more towels. Return to large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, sesame seed, sesame oil, and pepper. Pour dressing over vegetables and toss to coat. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, and/or sugar. Set aside.
- To make the glaze: Combine pineapple juice, sugar, soy sauce, ketchup, vinegar, garlic, ginger, and sriracha in a saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium, and simmer until thick and syrupy, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- To make the chicken: In a small bowl, mix together salt, ginger powder, garlic powder, and pepper. Coat chicken thighs all over with spice mixture and set chicken aside.
- Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place chicken thighs on hot side of grill and cook, flipping occasionally, until well browned and just cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes total. Move chicken to cool side of grill and brush all over with glaze. Cover grill and let cook until glaze had thickened, about 3 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Roughly chop chicken.
- Place tortillas on cool side of grill, cover, and warm until soft and pliable, about 1 minute. Stuff each tortilla with chicken and top with salsa and coleslaw. Serve immediately.
Glaze adapted from Cook's Country.