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Dining: Burning

Just how much Mexican food can one writer enjoy in a week?


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Revelers enjoy the Taco Tuesday specials at Compadres.

photo: olivier koning

Mexican food is one of those cuisines that people either love—periodically craving it with an unholy fervor—or have sworn off entirely. I’m in the first group and, lately, I’ve been in a bad state, stocking up on adobo sauce and fondling avocadoes.

“I could eat Mexican food every day and still love it,” I boasted to my boss. Famous last words, because no sooner did I utter this little south-of-the-border challenge than he sent me out on the town, undercover, to investigate the state of refried beans and queso blanco on Oahu. I confess that I didn’t wind up eating Mexican food every day, but I did manage to hit five Mexican restaurants in seven days. There are plenty of names left on my list—Diego’s Taco Shop, El Charro and Azteca are just a few—but there’s always next week.


1102 Piikoi St.

Lunch served 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, except on Wednesday, when the restaurant is closed all day. Dinner 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday to Saturday (closed Wednesday) and on Sundays, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Free parking at the Garden House, across the street. Major credit cards.

My first stop was Quintero’s, which I have to confess I’ve avoided in the past. The wooden box exterior looks dumpy and uninteresting and, worse still, I had heard it didn’t serve margaritas. But once inside, we were greeted by a cheerful, sombrero-accented decor and a purple paint job. It’s nothing glamorous, but it’s got the lighting, music and mood right.

And they have margaritas, Cuba libres, mojitos …. now we’re talking. Beer offerings include Pacifico, Corona, Sol, Tecate, Bohemia, Dos Equis and Negro Modelo. We tried the margaritas, which featured a sturdy burst of tequila, and a fairly thin—but at least not chemical—mixer. The salsa was spicy and tasty, as was the fresh, creamy guacamole.

When our server arrived with our entrees, we joked, “If only we had more food,” as the food was piled upon oval serving platters posing as plates. Be warned: the portions here redefine generous.

Our entrees included shrimp sauteed with fresh garlic and olive oil, which proved to be, as my companion said, “a squadron of well-prepared shrimps accompanied by tastily seasoned rice. Overall, more garlic than you should eat on a date.” My order, a vegetarian burrito, was enormous, and I bravely spelunked inside, surrounded by stalagmites of red peppers. The refried beans, served on the side, were soupy and seemed homemade, with a nice smoky flavor redolent of sauteed onion.

We wrapped our meal up with a house-made flan (available in milk or cheese flavor). It was outstanding, and even served in a normal, human-size portion, with a perfect, thin caramel sauce.

My only complaint at Quintero’s was that it seemed to be out of a lot of things we asked for—ceviche, rice pudding, mojitos (no mint in the house). But I’ll definitely be back.


The lanai at Cha Cha Cha Salsaria has great views.

photo: olivier koning

Cha Cha Cha Salsaria
Hawaii Kai Shopping Center
377 Keahole C-1A395-7797

Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Breakfast served until noon on Sundays.)

Free parking. Major credit cards.

The new location of Cha Cha Cha Salsaria, just one shopping center down from its previous incarnation, is a huge improvement. You can now sit outside, enjoying your meal while overlooking a bay so teal colored it borders on the ridiculous.

Cha Cha Cha still has a Caribbean flair, though, with the kind of pastel palette you find in the Bahamas, jerk chicken, “Jamaican firestick Plenty Hot” pepper sauce and reggae music. A lot of the food at least gives you the sensation you’ve ordered something healthy—vegetarian bean and nondairy options, for example. (Does this make up for the nachos? Why, of course.)

I dug into a virtuous-sounding blackened-tofu burrito, a nutty, whole-wheat tortilla packed with tofu, black beans, zucchini, lettuce and carrots. The salty, fried chips keep me from feeling too healthy-healthy, though, and allowed me to try a few of the restaurant’s salsas and collection of hot sauces.

We also ordered a garlic-lime chicken/vegetable quesadilla—plump, cheese-filled pillows of crispy goodness. An order of fish tacos, while OK, was not memorable. “They’re good—not the best I’ve ever had,” reported my tester.

Cha Cha Cha Salsaria makes the ideal location for a weekend lunch— it turns into a whole day activity, the kind of Saturday where you’re just too darned content and full to think about anything radical like moving. Stress gets drowned by salsa and margaritas. Palm trees wave at the fishermen puttering by. While we were there, a boat called Island Chemistry drifted by. Damn right, I thought to myself.


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Honolulu Magazine February 2018
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