At first glance, Okinawa, a subtropical island prefecture in the south of Japan, might seem like a surprising place to find restaurants specializing in Tex-Mex–Asian fusion. But taco rice (or takoraisu in Japan) is an immensely popular fast food in the region and has become recognized as one of Okinawan cuisine’s essential dishes since its creation in the mid-1980s.
Taco Rice: The Tex-Mex Classic That Originated in Okinawa
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10 ingredients. 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and fresh weeknight recipes.
As the name implies, taco rice is a warm bed of steamed rice blanketed in rich ground beef spiced not just with taco seasoning but also soy sauce, instant dashi, and mirin. The beef is topped with shredded cheese, lettuce, and sundry other taco fixings, and its enduring popularity isn’t hard to understand: It’s craveable, intensely satisfying, and affordable.
But how did this delightful take on cheesy ground beef tacos originate in Okinawa of all places, where the traditional, vegetable‑rich cuisine is credited with bestowing Okinawans with their famous longevity? The story is rooted in the aftermath of World War II and centers on the resilience and entrepreneurship of Matsuzo Gibo, an Okinawan who was a teenager when the war brought fighting to his home.
After starting a series of business ventures designed to cater to the U.S. Marines still stationed around Okinawa, Gibo opened his first restaurant, Parlor Senri, in the central town of Kin. Kin also houses Camp Hansen, and so it is home to thousands of American service personnel. He began by selling tacos, the Americanized kind that the Marines had brought with them, before he shifted to taco rice, an even more filling and inexpensive version that caught on quickly with the hungry Marines. Word spread and other businesses started selling taco rice too. Eventually, Gibo started King Tacos, a business that would grow to become a chain of restaurants that still specialize in taco rice.
Created to be delicious, fast, and inexpensive to make, taco rice has a clear appeal beyond Okinawan taco shops. With a few Japanese pantry ingredients on hand, it’s a cinch to make at home and a uniquely delightful way to level up your traditional ground beef taco mix.
Okinawan Taco RiceHow one Okinawan created an enduring take on a Tex-Mex classic—and why you should be making it at home.
Our version starts with a straightforward recipe for perfectly steamed Japanese short-grain rice (commonly sold as sushi rice), a mild, satisfying foil for the boldly seasoned beef. The half-hour it takes to cook the rice is plenty of time to prep and cook the rest of the meal, making taco rice perfect for any busy weeknight.
Once the rice is cooked and resting, we start the taco meat with a typical mix of browned ground beef, sautéed onion, and chile- and cumin-infused taco seasoning. It’s already a tasty combination, but strategically adding three Japanese pantry staples—soy sauce, mirin, and instant dashi—seriously enhances the flavor. The soy sauce and dashi ratchet up the umami, while the mirin rounds out the saltiness with sweetness, gentle acidity, and aromatic complexity.
Homemade Taco SeasoningHow one Okinawan created an enduring take on a Tex-Mex classic—and why you should be making it at home.
This uniquely delicious version of ground beef taco mix is incredibly flavorful, and when spooned over a mound of mellow, comforting rice and topped with creamy Monterey Jack cheese, fresh shredded lettuce, diced avocado, and tangy salsa, it’s perfectly irresistible. One bite and you’ll understand why it became a sensation in Okinawa and is spreading across the globe.