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Sep 2, 2008 05:40 PM

There IS Good Mexican in Hawaii

I've been warned at least a couple of dozen times... you will not find any good Mexican food in Hawaii... and if you do let me know. Well its done... there is good Mexican in Hawaii. Maybe not a lot of outstanding examples... not much that would take California, Chicago or Texas by storm... or survive in say in Mexico City... and Hawaii will probably never be a bastion of Mexican gastronomy... but with adjusted expectations... you can eat deliciously here.

Just Tacos brings a lot of promise to the islands. Hawaii Hispanic News current issue has a front page article on Jesus Santoyo.. the 26 year old behind this nascent chain. Jesus was born in Tijuana & lived in San Diego before attending college & business school in Long Beach (CA). He went on to work for Ross Department stores and became the Regional Director in charge of Hawaii & Guam... a couple of years ago he leveraged his Retail expertise to open the first Just Tacos on Bishop... and now has a 2nd location, larger location in Mililani. Good business skills + he knows real Mexican cuisine (at least that of Tijuana & Guadalajara where his parents are from) = A very promising restaurateur

I tried JT for the first time today...

> Ensenada style Fish Taco is extremely good... all the elements are there pilowy hand made corn tortillas, crispy greaseless fried fish fillet, cabbage, tangy white sauce... and a good "Fiery Red" sauce to round it out. Believe me... many San Diegans would like to have fish tacos this good. ($2.50)

> Birria Taco is pretty good. ($2.50) For those unfamiliar with Birria... its an ancient dish that has evolved in to various regional takes... but generally its lean red meat marinated in a rub of dried chiles & spices then cooked low & slow until meltingly tender. The most famous version comes from the Guadalajara sub-urb of Tlaquepaque where restaurants specialize in this one dish and don't do much else. In Tlaquepaque we are talking whole young goat (not kid)... the marinade might have guajillo chiles, vinegar, cloves, allspice, white pepper, thyme, marjoram, ginger etc.,... usually served in a broth made from the drippings... handmade tortillas, raw onions, cilantro & limes.

JT version is in the Tijuana style... beef instead of goat, and served without broth. This version was good... had a heady flavor from the marinade... but unfortunately JT doesn't prepare the appropriate salsa (Roasted Tomatillos, Garlic, Arbol Chiles etc.,)

So far so good... the major disappointment is that they don't make any Aguas Frescas... which I really don't understand because a Papaya or Pineapple agua would be perfect... and I think the locals would really like them.

Nitpicking... I wish they had a nice spicy fruit salad (Cucumber, Watermelon, Oranges, Mango, Coconut... sprinkle of Piquin powder, salt & lime juice)... as a side order... but whatdaugoin2do?

I will post about other decent Mexican eateries in the next couple of days.

Just Tacos Mexican Grill
1111 Bishop St, Honolulu, HI 96813

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  1. EM, you are Mexican manna from heaven.

    1. Wow, that sounds great! I would never have imagined any form of Jalisco fare in any part of Hawai`i. In Phoenix, a city not THAT far from the border and home to 10x the population of all of the Islands, there are two Jalisco restaurants, and one is not that good.

      For you, I am very happy. For me, I'll be giving them a try, on our next trip to O`ahu. Thanks for the report (coming from your keyboard, I really hold these dear), and great dining.



      2 Replies
      1. re: Bill Hunt

        Hunt - You and I have chatted on the SW Board. We just got back from Maui and did a lot of dining. Contact me offline (check my profile) if you want details. Not sure if you're headed to Maui or not....

        1. re: ejs1492

          Yes, Maui in Dec. It is done - check your mailbox.


      2. Azteca is a place I reported on earlier... the Pork Spareribs in Chile Verde are worth driving for. I haven't been back... but I want to reconnect with them about doing some off-menu dishes... maybe we can organize a chowdown some time.

        Azteca Mexican Restaurants
        3617 Waialae Ave, Honolulu, HI 96816

        1 Reply
        1. re: Eat_Nopal

          Has anyone else tried the pork spareribs in chile verde here? I believe they had a pork in chile verde sauce, but when I asked the lady if they had "pork ribs" (which could of mislead her), she said no. Can anyone confirm if the pork in chile verde the spareribs EP is talking about? guessing that's the same thing?

        2. Los Chaparros is another place I tried recently that is decent with some flourishes of promise. Wife & husband team... he is from Mexico City (been in Hawaii for 18 years), she is Asian with Northern California ties... the menu & cooking is what I would describe as Current Cal-Mex.... they offer two sides of menu... the Combination Plates serve the Californized Mexicanesque cooking that pays the bills... but they do offer some generic Pan-Mexican preps on the right side of the menu labeled "Los Chaparros Specialty Dishes":

          > Vegetable Soup... is one of several generic, nameless vegetable soups that at are served up daily throughout Mexico... stock, herbs & a variety of seasonal vegetables. Its soul satisfying but aks for a squeeze of lime to sharpen the flavors.

          > Enchiladas... they let you mix & match between Red & Green sauces and a variety of fillings (Griddled Vegetables, Cheese, Shredded Beef or Shredded Crab)... the sauces are both quite good... homemade & brothy with good flavor.... not the best I've ever had but they pass the lithmus test. The Griddled Vegetables with the Red Sauce is a very good combination, as is the Green Sauce with Crab... unfortunately they top them with yellow cheese... whearas a nice Cotija would be much more appropriate... c'est la vie.

          > Salsa Ranchera with Shrimp... another good, authentic tasting sauce... Shrimp were good texture but slightly fishy... perfectly edible... but I probably will not be ordering them again here.

          > Mexican Red Rice has acceptable flavor... but overcooked and predictable. Refried Beans were also blah. If you go... opt for the Soup instead of Rice & Beans with your entrees.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Eat_Nopal


            Los Chaparros
            2140 S Beretania St, Honolulu, HI 96826

            1. re: Eat_Nopal

              Update... a 2nd trip was less than adequate... the Chips this time were probably among the worst I have ever had... with a really bad, rancid, oily aftertaste.

              The Cal-Mex style burrito was very mediocre, even by Cal-Mex standards... way too much rice, bland, reheated, tough pork carnitas etc., and the smooth Tomato-Jalapeno salsa tasted fermented and not in an interesting way.

              The Vegetable Soup was okay but the Zucchini was falling apart to the touch.

            2. thanks for the reports EN. I look forward to getting downtown one of these days to try Just Tacos. Wondering if you have had a chance to check out El Charro down on Sand Island Access Road (relatively close to airport area)

              8 Replies
              1. re: KaimukiMan

                Not yet... I know some co-workers who eat there regularly and think its good. "Its pretty authentic... when I ask them whats in the plantain dessert they don't know enough English to respond".... I haven't quite gone around "educating" people on the differences between Cal-Mex and Mex-Mex here at work... but I do hear they have a good Menudo... and I look forward to checking it out.

                This week I am going to mess with some Luau leaves... cook them simply, taste them, understand them. I imagine they might be good substitutes for Agave "Skins" in Mixiotes and other such dishes.... they might also make good tacos, or substitutes for Verdolagas (Purslane) in Sparerib dishes.

                Also want to work on creating a Macadamia mole, and a Poi mole in hopes I can convince one of the local Mex places to put them on the menu.

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  Luau leaf (taro leaf) gets very soft when it is cooked, and it must be thoroughly cooked to break down the acids in the leaf and stalks. It has a very "green" flavor, not unlike asparagus. The mac and Poi mole sound interesting.

                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                    Thanks... it sounds like it would be good in a rich, nutty Green Mole with some Duck Carnitas or Smoked Duck (at least battered Asparagus or Greens are usually good in the prep).

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      as you probably know, the most common use of taro/luau leaf these day is as part of the filling in a laulau, another dish not nearly as common is squid luau. not one of my favorites, but the idea of a green mole made me think of it.

                      here is a recipe link:

                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                        Thanks... I think Coconut-Green Mole is it!

                    2. re: Eat_Nopal

                      Being a pushover for most moles, I want to know how it goes. Sounds interesting!

                      Have you thought about opening up a central-Mexican restaurant? I'd be honored to be your first patron.


                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        I've thought about ever since I was old and savvy enough to realize that L.A. was woefully lacking in Mex cuisine... or at least the best Mex has to offer. I am in a better position than ever to make that happen... and actively networking with Hawaii's hispanic business leaders... which is a surprisingly vibrant community (a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce member is on the task force to resolve Hawaii's tourism crisis... in a nutshell... surveys of Japanese travelers indicate Hawaii has fallen behind in terms of Haute ammenities, has become stale... and they are increasingly choosing European destinations & even China over Hawaii... all this independent of the current U.S. economic woes).... but I am still years away from doing anything serious.