Get Authentic Mexican Food and Quality Burgers Now at The Street
The food hall at the International Market Place adds chef Hugh Ortega’s Mi Almita Cantina and Burger Hale by the MW Restaurant folks to the lineup.
James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Ortega opened Mi Almita Cantina this week at The Street, a Michael Mina Social House in Waikīkī. He’s serving authentic Mexican fare, including this Mexican-style paella.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox
Change has come to The Street, a Michael Mina Social House—and it’s a very good thing.
Two new concepts—a sit-down Mexican cantina helmed by a James Beard Award-winning chef and a burger joint by the couple behind MW Restaurant—joined the nine other stalls this month at the food hall at the International Market Place.
This week Houston chef Hugo Ortega (Backstreet Café, Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi) opened Mi Almita Cantina, the first brick-and-mortar location for this concept, which got its start as a pop-up at the Mina Test Kitchen in San Francisco last year. Ortega, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 2017, created a menu that blends traditional Mexican fare with Hawai‘i-grown ingredients: The ceviche ($12) features line-caught kajiki and grilled pineapple; the crudo tostada ($17) uses local ‘ahi and mango; and the quesadilla ($12) is stuffed with mushrooms from Small Kine Farm in Waimānalo.
Ortega even gets his coconuts and ti and banana leaves from a guy he happened to meet near Diamond Head the other day while he was riding around on a Biki bike.
“The Islands are so rich, there’s so much to offer,” says Ortega, who’s in town for the opening of Mi Almita, which means “my little soul.” “It’s truly paradise here.”
The Mexican paella is loaded with Kaua‘i shrimp, Pono Pork chorizo and roasted chicken. Ortega is sourcing as many ingredients locally as possible.
The local ‘ahi tuna crudo tostada is one of Mi Almita’s signature appetizers, with avocado, sour orange mayo, mango and slices of watermelon radish.
The prime New York strip steak carne brava is topped with strips of roasted poblano peppers and onions.
Mi Almita Cantina, which seats 96, opened in the spaces vacated by Lamill Coffee Boutique and Aloha Ice, fronting Kūhiō Avenue.
Ortega, who is revered by foodies and critics for creating memorable Mexican food—and for his effervescent personality—never imagined he would be opening a restaurant in Hawai‘i, much less partnering with the acclaimed James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Mina.
“He’s my idol,” says Ortega, 53, who got his start in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher. “When I was in culinary school [in 1991] I remember looking at this beautiful cookbook by Michael Mina and thinking, ʻHow in the world does he make this beautiful food?’”
Here’s the story: Last year Mina and fellow chef Charlie Palmer were in Houston for an event surrounding the Super Bowl. They had kept hearing about this restaurant called Hugo’s—run by Ortega and his restaurateur wife Tracy Vaught—and decided to try it for lunch. “The food blew my mind,” says Mina, who raved about the tableside margaritas, wood-roasted Gulf oysters and the pulpo al carbon (grilled octopus). “It was so different from what I had expected. It was so alive ... And I was floored by Hugo as a person. You fall in love with him. You just want to squeeze him.”
To understand Ortega’s food, you have to know his roots. He was born in Mexico City, the oldest of eight. For about four years, his family lived in Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico with his grandmother. There was no running water or electricity. He learned to herd and milk goats. “Living was very primitive,” he explains.
But this is where he learned a valuable lesson that would later influence his cooking: “My grandma told me the more you love the land, the more it will give to you.”
He immigrated to Houston in 1984 and started working as a dishwasher, first at a local bar, then at Backstreet Café. He expressed an interest in working in the kitchen and moved to line cook. Vaught, the owner, offered to enroll him in the culinary arts program at Houston Community College, from which he graduated in 1992. He assumed the role of chef, married Vaught, then moved up to executive chef in 1995. The couple opened Hugo’s in 2002, which earned critical acclaim—and legions of fans—for its departure from the usual Tex-Mex fare in Houston.
Here’s what you can expect from Mi Almita Cantina: a variety of tacos made to order including one with slow-cooked Pono Pork ($17 for three) and another with his famous charred octopus ($22); a Mexican paella with Kaua‘i shrimp, Pono Pork chorizo and roasted chicken ($31); chipotle-broiled Kona lobster ($26 for a small portion, $52 for a larger one); a 12-ounce New York strip steak with poblano peppers ($38); tamales ($17 to $19); margaritas; and desserts, including fresh cinnamon churros ($9).
“Mexican [cuisine] is very underserved here,” Mina says. “The way this crosses over with local ingredients, it becomes the magical part of it.”
Chef Michael Mina (second from left) launched two new concepts at The Street, one helmed by MW Restaurant’s Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka and another by Houston chef Hugh Ortega (far right).
And if the opening Mi Almita Cantina wasn’t enough to get diners to The Street, Burger Hale might be.
Earlier this month chefs Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka (MW Restaurant, Artizen by MW) took over the space vacated by Maui Onion Burger—across the way from Mi Almita—and introduced ethnic flavors to the traditional burger. (The space looks the same save for a cool custom wave mural by notable Hilo artist Aaron Kai.)
The new eatery, called Burger Hale, has a small but complex offering of hand-shaped burgers: a classic burger with American cheese ($10.99), a pipi kaula burger with pickled onions ($12.99), a kim chee burger with sliced pork belly and gochujang ($12.99) and a sukiyaki burger with thinly sliced beef and sweet onions ($12.99). All of the burgers are served on specialty buns—a mix of mochi and Portuguese sweet breads—created by Karr-Ueoka.
“I felt like if [Mina] was coming to us for a burger, we should add an Asian influence to them,” Ueoka says.
The pipi kaula burger is Ueoka’s take on a pastrami burger. This one comes with pickled onions and is served in a mochi portuguese sweet bread bun.
The sukiyaki loco moco features a smashed patty topped with thinly sliced beef marinated in a soy-based dashi sauce, local-style brown gravy and a sunny egg, all on a bed of fried rice.
The shave ice shakes are the brainchild of Karr-Ueoka, who operated Aloha Ice at The Street. (The space is now part of Mi Almita Cantina.) This shake combines vanilla ice cream with strawberry-hibiscus shave ice. Simple and refreshing.
The couple did a pop-up in this spot in March, testing some of the flavors. Mina’s favorite was the sukiyaki, he says.
All of the burgers can be turned into a loco moco—with fried rice and a sunny egg from OK Poultry—or combined with barbecue fries or onions rings and one of Karr-Ueoka’s shave ice shakes, a refreshing mix of house-made ice cream with hand-shaved ice.
“We had to make some changes [at The Street],” Mina says, “but it’s all starting to line up really beautifully.”
Mi Almita Cantina, 2311 Kūhiō Ave., ground floor of the International Market Place; breakfast from 7 to 10 a.m., lunch and dinner from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; (808) 377-6915, mialmitacantina.com.
Burger Hale, 2309 Kūhiō Ave., ground floor of the International Market Place; lunch and dinner from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; (808) 377-4402.
Bring the family down to the Best of Honolulu Festival July 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Honolulu Hale civic grounds. Eat at ‘ono food booths, shop local designers in the marketplace, bring the family to the keiki zone for face painting, balloon animals, rides, games and more. For more information, visit honolulumagazine.com/bestofhonolulu.
Be sure to cast your vote for your favorite restaurants in the 2019 Hale ʻAina Awards here. Voting ends June 30.