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Dining: Burning

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


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Dishing up the tacos at Compadres.

photo: olivier koning

Compadres
Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd.
591-8307

Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m.

Free parking. Major credit cards.

Compadres, which translates as “buddies,” is a fitting name for this Ward Centre institution. We plunged through the crowds of amigos on a Taco Tuesday, when the restaurant draws a large, happy-hour crowd for drink specials and $1 tacos. It’s a sea of halter tops and tequila-fueled flirtation—and a young sea at that; I counted 14 baseball caps from my perch at the bar. Good lord. I was relieved when they called my name, and I pried my margarita off the sticky bar to head for the relative sanctuary of a table.

The restaurant is raucous, even on days that do not happen to be Tuesday, due to some pretty loud acoustics and constant renditions of “Happy Birthday.” But the service was swift and accurate, and the chips and water arrived quickly.

We ordered a taco salad, with chicken (you can also order it with beef). It was pretty heavy on the salsa; “more onions than salad,” my friend noted. The Camarones Al Mojo de Ajo—prawns sauteed in butter and garlic—was served over rice with black beans. The garlic was rather burned and bitter, but otherwise the dish was very good—large, tender shrimp, and plenty of them. The “warm” zucchini salsa that accompanied it, while truly refreshing and well layered in flavor, was stone cold.

Compadres probably works best if you’re in a large group, celebrating a promotion and wearing a sombrero. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Stress gets drowned by salsa and margaritas.

 

El Burrito
550 Piikoi St.
596-8225

Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday.

Street parking. Cash only.

The signage outside El Burrito— “No personal checks cashed,” “No pets,” “No credit cards”—gives it an ominous aura. Once inside, the restaurant is plain, but perfectly neat and clean. It’s a small place, about 10 tables.

“It’s all good,” a fellow patron leaned over to tell me, as I studied the menu. The salsa was certainly a good start—my mouth was burning.

I ordered a bowl of vegetable soup, and the server warned me, ever so sweetly, “be careful, it’s really hot,” when she brought it to the table. It was indeed piping hot, a huge bowl of zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli and celery that seemed just as wholesome as the braces-wearing young server.

The restaurant has a liberal, “choose two” combination plate offering, allowing you to customize what you’d like to eat. I sampled a bean-and-cheese taco and a vegetable enchilada. The taco was perfect—shredded cheese just starting to ooze as it arrived and an authentic corn tortilla. I liked the enchilada less, as it was stuffed with the same vegetable melange that had been in my soup.

Eating at El Burrito, I had the distinct impression I was being cooked for by someone’s mother. Everything seemed comforting. The food isn’t fancy, but it’s hot, and it’s good and it’s served by a sweetie. And sure enough, when I peeked back into the kitchen, there was the middle-aged lady with a sensible haircut and a ladle. It’s also quite inexpensive— a huge lunch came out to $14.

The restaurant also does takeout orders, so you can buy a six-pack of Negro Modelo and curl up for a nice, almost-home-cooked dinner at your own place. But then, who would warn you when the soup is hot?

 

La Bamba
847 Kapahulu Ave.
737-1956

Open Sunday through Friday, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Saturday.

Street parking. Major credit cards.

The menu at La Bamba proudly declares, “authentic Mexican food by authentic Mexican cooks.” This BYOB is a neighborhood establishment, filled with a steady stream of appreciative customers, some toting bottles of red wine, others, coolers of beer. The whole place has an interesting, vaguely Twilight Zone vibe: painfully white-bright lighting, a gothic font on the menu, a lurching cactus and a chandelier that seemed swiped from a 1960s Barbie house. The patrons are a great mix, too—families, an older guy sporting an Iron Man shirt, hipsters in Von Dutch caps.

We started with some guacamole, which was good, laden with cilantro. “I always eat really fast here,” my friend sighed, as he speared into his vegetable enchilada. “I’m told they make the best enchiladas in town.”

I’d vote them in for best refried beans, myself. They were almost crusty on top, but not dried out—a wonder of legume engineering. The beans were by far the best of the five restaurants I had tried.

There were no seafood offerings here, so we tried a Taco Mexico City—a beef taco gone local with Maui onions, a chicken enchilada and a chile relleno. Good, good and good.

I’d definitely go back here, but with an eyeshade.

 

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