First Look: Barrio Café

This new Mexican spot in Wahiawā, with local takes on authentic dishes, isn’t a secret anymore.


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The Churro French Toast is a six-piece tower of steamy, crispy goodness, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and homemade cajeta-caramel sauce and chocolate sauce, topped with a mound of butter and three swirly fried pieces of linguine for looks.
Photos: Lorin Eleni Gill

 

To find tasty authentic Mexican food on O‘ahu, sometimes you literally have to hunt. Wahiawā’s new Barrio Café is no exception.

 

As you drive along Kīlani Avenue, look out for a tan brick building with windows framing bright blue and pink walls inside. Barrio’s sign is still under construction.

 

With the kitchen located front and center, the lively restaurant seats about two dozen people and is currently run by just two women: owner Miriam Olivas and attentive hostess Lizeth Crosbie.

 

“I don’t like big restaurants,” Olivas says. “That’s why I put the kitchen in front, so I can talk to people and it’s inviting.”

 

Barrio Café may be off the typical Honolulu foodie’s radar, but it’s no secret to the Wahiawā community. Food has been the family business ever since a 15-year-old Olivas and her family moved to Wahiawā in 1996 from San Diego. Barrio Cafe’s “mama” branch, El Palenque—run by Olivas’ mother, Armida Duarte—is not far away and has been a local favorite for two decades. Its sister spot, Ceviche House on Wilikina Drive, has also garnered a following since it opened last year.

 

Olivas concocted a Latin cuisine menu to reflect her “life story,” she explains. True to its name, Barrio, which means neighborhood in Spanish, is an ode to the neighborhoods and cities that shaped her childhood: El Paso, Texas; San Diego, California; and, of course, Wahiawā.

 

While this breakfast and lunch spot may be small, its portions are huge. We began with a generous cup of horchata, the classic cinnamon rice milk drink, for $3. For a kick of caffeine, try the horchata ice coffee ($4).

 

Breakfast is served all day, so, as any brunch fan would, we ordered the churro French toast ($8.50). This dish is a tower of six pieces of crispy toast, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and homemade cajeta-caramel sauce and chocolate sauce, topped with a mound of butter and adorned with three fried pieces of pasta.

 

We also dove into two other house specialties. The chilaquiles ($12)—an ancestor of the nachos, if you will—come with crispy-fried tortillas bathed in a flavorful red or green salsa and your choice of protein, altered to your preferred spice level. The other specialty we tried was the Mexi-loco moco ($11). Instead of gravy, Olivas cooks up a green chili stew with ground pork by roasting three different peppers: poblano, Anaheim and jalapeño. The peppers are joined by tomatillo, the Mexican husk tomato, to achieve a certain “tangy-ness,” Olivas says, noting proudly that her recipe is a three-time winner of the chili cook-off contest hosted by Kemo‘o Farms Bar and Grill. Served over a bed of rice and two over-easy eggs, it’s Hawai‘i’s favorite comfort food with a new Mexican spice twist.

 

The chilaquiles, the ancestors of nachos, come with fried corn tortillas with a choice of pork, beef, or chicken, your choice of sauce, two eggs and fresh salsa.

 

Barrio’s Mexi-loco moco is a flavorful twist on the Hawai’i favorite. Owner Miriam Olivas uses three kinds of chili peppers and tomatillo in the pork stew.

 

For a taste of Olivas’ time in El Paso, get the taquitos el chuco ($12), four rolled beef taquitos topped with cheese and covered in Barrio’s house tomato sauce. Meanwhile, elements of her time in Southern California shine through the rest of the lunch menu, which features seared marlin fish tacos topped with jicama slaw and chipotle sauce ($13); a steak-and-fries Cali Burrito ($10); an assortment of tostada (flat taco with made with a fried tortilla); Barrio Krazy Fries topped with a medley of savory meats, a house sauce and tossed dried chipotle peppers ($13); cheese fries topped with Olivas’ popular green chili ($11); and steak asada fries ($11).

 

There’s also the Mexican staples: an array of hot torta sandwiches, build-your-own burrito, quesadilla or chimichanga, and house salad served in an edible bowl with savory marinated chicken, steak, fish or shrimp, tossed with pico de gallo, cucumbers and a house chipotle dressing. All menu items are priced between $9 and $13. And if you order the cheesy Spam and egg Leilehua Band Burrito ($9), a portion of the proceeds will go to the high school’s band program.

 

If you still have room for dessert, there’s a tres leches cake, churros con cajeta (Mexican caramel sauce), or a capirotada (Mexican bread pudding), all $5 each.

 

Opening Barrio Café wasn’t exactly planned. Initially, its space was to be the future home of El Palenque. But Olivas’ mother, Armida Duarte, hatched a new plan in the final hour.

 

“Once we got the lease and everything going, my mom changed her mind and pretty much said, ‘You know what? I don’t really want to go, why don’t you start your own business?’” Olivas says. “So, she was kind of throwing me out there to swim. I think it was that time, though. I had been at El Palenque for 23 years.”

 

Look out, Mom, because you’ve got some competition.

 

Barrio Café, 672 Kīlani Ave., Wahiawā, (808) 622-3003

 

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