Mexican Revolution

Fresh fish, handmade tortillas, rib-eye carne asada—it’s a brave new world of Mexican food in Honolulu.
Mi Casa Taqueria offers a "guacasalsa" that blends chili verde with guacamole. photo: Olivier Koning

I’d never been a big fan of Mexican food in Honolulu. For decades, we’ve had Compadres, but that popular operation always defined itself not as Mexican, but as "Western cooking with a Mexican accent."

Otherwise, Honolulu has never been rich in Mexican restaurants. Many have been Styrofoam plate eateries, serving predictable combo meals: enchiladas or tacos or burritos with beans and rice. They were never bad, but never quite the Mexican food I was hungry for, either.

However, the town has sprouted a number of new taquerias. Suddenly, I was hearing people talk about Mexican food with enthusiasm. It was time to open up my mind, dip some chips into some salsa and see what was out there.

This time I got lucky. I found the restaurant I was looking for, plus a couple of noteworthy newcomers. Let’s start with the best, and then drop by three other Mexican eateries.

3046 Monsarrat Ave.
Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday through Sunday 12-9 p.m.
Limited parking, major credit cards

Mi Casa is, indirectly, the product of a booming Island economy. Mi Casa’s owners, Ken Selvidge and his wife, Angelica–he originally from Texas, she from Jalisco, Mexico–had much the same restaurant under the same name in Spokane, Wash.

"Our purpose in starting a business in Spokane was to sell it eventually and move to a bigger, more happening market," says Ken Selvidge. The Selvidges looked first at Texas and California. "California, believe it or not, was far more trouble than Hawai’i. Things were booming here. And we got a good deal on a great location."

The location is a charming one, a stand-alone stucco building that’s bright and open to the street. Lit up at night, it beckons you inside. The space has in recent years housed a whole range of restaurants. All were colorful in two senses–brightly decorated and full of unexpected food. There was Pronto, with its ostrich burger, Zazou, with its Greek stews and Italian pastas, Wild and Raw, with its sprout sandwiches and unbaked peanut cookies. None was a hit.

The space finally has a restaurant that works. Mi Casa is, by design, a fast and casual eatery. You order at the counter, sit at one of the tables, and the staff brings you your food, on real plates.

The menu offers the familiar combos, but you don’t have to eat that way. Bring enough people and the Selvidges will serve you family style, with platters of food.

I was fortunate to be there with a party of 10. They were wine buffs, mainly the staff from Fujioka’s Wine Times, including Lyle Fujioka himself, who’d insisted I had to try this restaurant. There’s a disadvantage of going to a restaurant with wine professionals. Mi Casa is BYOB, and this group wanted to taste 20 or so wines–before dinner got served. That’s because any food at all interferes with the palate. A few even complained when Selvidge began setting salads and salsas on the table, because the aromas compromised their ability to judge the wine.

I had the opposite reaction. The food smelled so good, I wanted to give up the wine tasting and dig in. When the shrimp arrived, I finally refused to wait any longer.

What shrimp–sautéed in garlic butter, seasoned simply with salt, paprika and chili powder. This was not the kind of chili powder you might buy from the supermarket, which includes cumin, oregano and other flavors. It was the powder of California and New Mexico chilis, spicy, but not terribly hot.

If you like your Mexican food to ignite your taste buds, Mi Casa is probably not for you. Selvidge insists that street-level Mexican food in Mexico does not have too much heat, although you are always welcome to add salsa. He says he always tells people who complain about the absence of burn: "If you don’t like our food, don’t go to Mexico."

Mi Casa’s food is not overbearingly hot, but it’s not dull, either. There’s a salad of cucumber and jicama, the crunchy white root vegetable that Selvidge says he can find fresh in Hawai’i under the name "chop suey yam." It’s dressed simply, but flavorfully, in lime, salt and chili powder. It’s accompanied by a fresh house slaw of cabbage, black beans and corn, tossed with cilantro, lime and salt and pepper. It’s so good that Mi Casa has taken to serving it as an entrée, topped with chicken.

Eating family style, we got our meats on platters. The carne asada, grilled skirt steak in a chili rub, goes remarkably well with what Mi Casa sells as "guacasalsa." Chili verde is blended with guacamole, so that the flavors of the salsa are extended and smoothed out by the avocado.

Ken and Angelica Selvidge of Mi Casa Taqueria. photo: Olivier Koning

The Mi Casa carnitas are not classic Mexican, but then, most Americans are not attracted to the concept of pork cooked in lard. Mi Casa renders down the pork in its own juice, in a crock pot. It’s then embellished a little with orange juice and milk, just a little hint of sweetness that brings out the pork’s own natural sweetness. I found this addictive.

Finally, the fish was a remarkably fresh mahi fillet, marinated in adobo spices, not Filipino adobo, but Spanish, which goes a little lighter on the vinegar. We ate the meats with those inevitable accompaniments–rice, beans and tortillas. These parts of the meal are often afterthoughts. But Mi Casa makes three or four pots of pinto beans each day, so they are freshly made, not refried, with some good texture to them. They’re not topped with the usual melted cheddar or jack, but with a sprinkling of cojito, a Mexican cheese. I usually gob up the beans with salsa, these I ate unembellished.

Every other taqueria I tried served commercial tortillas. Mi Casa has house-made corn tortillas. These are magical. A little smaller and thicker than usual, they are sensuous in your hand, soft to the bite, sweet and lively on the palate. I’ve only had their like at Old Town Mexican Café in San Diego, which features its tortilla makers in the window, and I am not sure that Mi Casa’s aren’t better.

All of this added up to $20 a head, including tip, although you could eat here more simply for $8 to $10 a person. It also added up to a splendid dinner, full of clean, direct, delicious flavors that were, among other things, wine friendly.

There was plenty of wine on the table. I drank mainly an Italian white, a Cavalchina Bianchi Custoza, balanced and crisp enough to match the elegant simplicity of the food. I am looking forward to returning.

2140 S. Beretania St., 951-6399
Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5-9 p.m.,
Friday through Saturday 5-10 p.m. Free parking, major credit cards

Of the new Mexican restaurants, Los Chaparros is one of the few that’s full-service. As at Mi Casa, you may also bring in wine, no corkage. I brought a brut rose champagne, which worked with the food, though champagne pretty much works with everything.

Although the cooking here lacks the precision of Mi Casa, the menu is full of items worth exploring beyond the usual tacos, burritos and enchiladas. For instance, among the appetizers are jalapeño peppers deep-fried in wonton wrappers. Unfortunately, several of ours were overfried, almost burned. The ones that survived the fryer were fun to eat, although I would skip the commercial ranch dressing that serves as the dip.

Among the soups on weekends is a posole, made rich with pork and hominy (the same dried corn that grits are made of), fiery with chilis. There’s fresh lime to squeeze in the soup and plenty of shredded lettuce, onion, radish on the side. If you pile all this stuff into the bowl, it turns into a kind of soup and salad at once.

Instead of the usual carne asada, Los Chapparos serves a steak à la Mexicana, sautéed with sliced tomatoes, onions and peppers. Ours was a bit too well done, but still enjoyable. Even better was mojo de ajo, the fish sautéed with peppers, with a strong touch of lime and perhaps even vinegar.

Best of all was the chicken mole. Mole simply means concoction, though it’s sometimes translated as chocolate sauce. It’s not Hershey’s, but it does gain a certain richness from dark Mexican chocolate. Ours was a rich brown with a touch of fire and a real touch of sweetness. This we couldn’t get enough of.

Among the desserts, the warm bread pudding with cinnamon is worth investigating. Los Chaparros could perhaps execute just a bit better, but you have to applaud its willingness to provide food you just don’t see on most Mexican menus. It’s a serious restaurant with an appealing décor and good ambitions.

Dinner for three was $72 with tip, though we certainly ordered off the high end of the menu.

3040 Wai’alae Ave.
Open daily 11 a.m. until about 6:45 or 7 p.m., whenever the food runs out
Limited parking, cash only

There’s a small, remarkably dense cluster of shops and restaurants on Wai’alae Avenue at the bottom of St. Louis Drive. Among its other offerings–Italian, Korean, a shave ice stand–is Baja Tacos.

The tiny, crowded parking lot is unwelcoming, as is the counter help at Baja. You order at an outside counter, which looks designed to grab and go. But you can also step through the door into a dozen-seat, enclosed dining room and eat in comfort.

The dining room really lights up when owner Winston Gabriel runs out of food, which happened when we were there at about 6:45 p.m. Then, remarkably chipper for a guy who has been cooking all day, he wanders in to chat with guests, check how his food is being received. Gabriel and wife, Tracy, grew up in Honolulu. He learned to cook at the Greenery Restaurant and the Seafood Emporium, both now long gone. He spent more than seven years in San Diego, where he mastered that south of California/north of Mexico style of taqueria.

"I can also cook Italian," he said, "but there’s already an Italian restaurant here." He likes the location, because it’s close to the University of Hawai’i and Chaminade. "When you think of Mexican food, what do you think? Cheap," he said. "Perfect for students." He may keep his prices down, but Gabriel doesn’t stint on his ingredients. We ordered two combo plates. I thought the carne asada odd, the steak cut into tiny, thin squares. I wanted to bite into something more substantial. My companion loved it and just took the plate from me. "The meat tastes great," she said.

When we asked Gabriel, he went to the refrigerator to show us the cut of meat he uses. It’s rib eye, cut off the bone, the fat trimmed, and thinly sliced. Each morning he cuts it into even smaller pieces, so it grills fast. "There’s limited parking, I try to get people on their way in about 10 minutes."

It was good my companion took my steak, because she did not like the pork adobada. I found it compelling. Although it was cut into the same small squares as the steak, it was cooked in a thick, almost dry sauce with a serious chili tang and a faint touch of vinegar.

I told Gabriel how much I enjoyed this. "I just got back from Mexico," he said. "Look what I brought back." From a shopping bag he pulled out a large red California pepper and an even larger black pepper from Mexico. "This is the key," he said. "You have to have the right peppers."

Baja serves commercially made tortillas. But the tortillas with the adobada are dipped in the chili sauce, then grilled, which perks them up considerably.

We also tried a fish taco, long strips of mahi cooked in an unusual way. It was lemon pepper and sherry, said Gabriel, the lemon pepper he made himself with the zest from all the lemons he used in cooking.

Finally, his carnitas had the texture almost of kälua pig, but they had a rich, deep flavor I could not place. Gabriel also doesn’t want to cook carnitas in lard, so he braises it in chicken stock. I overheard him recommend the chili verde salsa to another carnitas-eating customer. Gabriel’s salsas are house made and sizzling hot, especially the chili verde. I couldn’t taste the pork through it. On its own, on a tostada, topped with a little guacamole, it was a treat.

Baja is what you expect from a taqueria–if you like your Mexican food to be inexpensive, but still quality, and sizzling with chilis, it would be hard to do better.

2239 S. King St.,
Monday to Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Limited parking (enter through the side street Makahiki Way), cash only.

A number of people whose opinions I respect had told me that this small taqueria had the best Mexican food in Honolulu. Having eaten a great deal of Mexican food this month, I couldn’t bring myself to agree.

You’d never feel cheated eating here, because Diego’s prices are low even by taqueria standards. Two people would have to work hard to spend more than $15.

Good, fast, cheap, yes, but not superlative. The tortillas were standard commercial products. The beans were house made, with a decent texture, but not much flavor. Both the carnitas and the carne asada were oversalted. The fish in the fish taco was breaded. The best thing on our table was a pair of chicken enchiladas, wet with a traditional red enchilada sauce.

On the menu was a Spam-and-eggs burrito. I was tempted to get one, just to say I’d eaten what I took to be an only-in-Hawai’i concoction. "Oh," said the woman at the counter, "we had to take it off the menu. Nobody ordered it. If we opened a can of Spam, it went bad."

Diego’s is not bad. Ten years ago, it might have been one of Hawai’i’s top Mexican eateries. But we’ve come a long way in the last year or two. The competition for best Mexican food in town has recently gotten a lot tougher.