Barrio Café and Taqueria El Ranchero: Two Reasons Wahiawā Has Great Mexican Food

A Taste of Oaxaca dinner, a Tres de Mayo party, and mechanical bull for Taco Tuesdays.
Mexican food in Hawai‘i
Photos: Martha Cheng


Whether or not you’re looking to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, you should head to Wahiawā for Mexican food. Yes, Wahiawā where a mother runs El Palenque and makes tortillas by hand while her daughter serves ceviche at Barrio Café and creates special dinner menus with recipes from Oaxaca. Where Taqueria El Ranchero sets up a mechanical bull in the parking lot for Taco Tuesdays, and on Friday and Saturdays, pushes the tables back in the bar for people to dance salsa until 2 a.m., all while serving tacos with al pastor, carne asada, lengua.


Wahiawā, it turns out, is a fantastic hub of Mexican food and fun.

  Mexican food in Hawai‘i

Al pastor, carne asada, and lengua tacos at Taqueria El Ranchero 


Taqueria El Ranchero

If Taqueria El Ranchero feels like a San Francisco Mission district taqueria, it’s by design. “I grew up going to [those] taquerias almost everyday, I kind of knew the menu already, so I copied them and brought the people here,” says Hector Garcia Gomez, who was raised in San Francisco before he joined the military and was stationed in Wahiawā. “In order for us to get the taqueria flavor, we had to get people from the taquerias in SF.” He knows what he’s doing—everything tastes just like their San Francisco counterparts: tacos and burritos with meats including chorizo, carne asada and lengua, prepared on a griddle in front of you; and an array of aguas frescas, like watermelon and horchata. On weekends, there’s pozole for breakfast, often ordered by those nursing hangovers, perhaps from Taqueria El Ranchero’s late night salsa parties which takes over its bar next door. El Ranchero opened in May of 2015, and less than a year later expanded into the adjacent space to accommodate the booming business and serve booze.


Taco Tuesdays, though, are El Ranchero’s busiest times, when lines lead out the door on the taqueria side and it’s standing room only on the bar side for $1.50 tacos and $5 margaritas. There are fewer takers for the mechanical bull, but maybe I just didn’t stay late enough, after enough margaritas were consumed.


You probably won’t find a mechanical bull in a San Francisco taqueria, though there might be a mariachi band. And there’s one at El Ranchero at least once a year—Garcia always throws a pre-Cinco de Mayo party a few days before (the day itself is already too crazy), when he flies in a mariachi band from California and sets up a stage and outdoor bar in the parking lot. It’s from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. tonight, May 3. But if you miss it, there will still be Taco Tuesday, weekend salsa dancing, and Wednesday … karaoke. Maybe not so Mexican, nor San Francisco, but definitely Hawai‘i. “We just try to make it different,” Garcia says. So much for copying.


Open Sunday to Thursday 7 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m., 823 California Ave., Suite A5, Wahiawā, 621-9000,

  Mexican food in Hawai‘i

The avo-cuatro at Barrio Café: fish, shrimp, shrimp and octopus, and octopus ceviche in avocado halves


Barrio Café

At Barrio Café, you’ll find a whole page of ceviche, as well as green chili cheese fries and carne asada fries, churro French toast, and the Puerto Rican tripleta, a sandwich with steak, chicken and ham. Barrio is Miriam Olivas’ way of celebrating the places she’s been (she was born in Juarez, in northern Mexico, and raised in El Paso, Texas), the mixing of cultures over time, and a “brighter look on Mexican food.” That is, brighter than her mother’s restaurant a few blocks away, El Palenque, which opened in 1996 next to an adult video rental store (it’s a tattoo parlor now). At El Palenque, Olivas’ mother Armida Duarte serves large plates of fajitas and enmoladas, rolled tacos smothered in mole.


See also: First Look: Barrio Café  

  Mexican food in Hawai‘i

Green chile cheese fries


Not that Olivas is turning her back on tradition—for mid-May, she’s planning a Taste of Oaxaca dinner based on her recent travels to the region. The only way to find out exactly when the dinner is, though, is to visit the restaurant and sign up for Barrio’s email list. The restaurant normally only serves breakfast and lunch, but in addition to the upcoming special dinners, Barrio is also open Friday nights for Taco Friday, serving tacos from the familiar to unusual, such as liver and smoked pork, all part of Olivas’ desire to introduce different tastes and, because, as she says, “Why do we have tacos on Tuesdays? Why can’t we have them on Fridays?” Good questions.


Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Friday 7 to 10 p.m., 672 Kīlani Ave., Wahiawā, 622-3003, barriocafe808


Read more stories by Martha Cheng