Just how much Mexican food can one writer enjoy in a week?
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.
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.
Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd.
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.
550 Piikoi St.
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?
847 Kapahulu Ave.
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.