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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?

http://just-tacos.com/Default.asp

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

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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.

      Aloha,

      Hunt

      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.

          Hunt

      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.

        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/532779

        -----
        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":

          http://www.loschaparros.com/TakeOut_F...

          > 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

            Link

            -----
            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:
                      http://www.hawaii.edu/recipes/chicken...

                      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.

                      Hunt

                      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.

                  2. Update... the Shrimp tacos are even better than the Fish (again you have to go with the Spicy salsa)... the Chicken in Mole Poblano taco is pretty good although the sauce is a bit muted.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      Just Tacos Update... this joint continues to be very consistent. The Shrimp tacos are the best by far, the Fish are runner ups. The Mole, Birria & Cochinita are all decent but not particularly Chow Worthy. Guacamole is bland but their "Spicy Salsa" made of Garlic & Dried Chiles is money.

                    2. I can't wait to try JT! It sounds amazing.

                      1. There is a decent Mexican place in the mini mall with a movie theatre on Big Island. I had a decent burrito (not sure if it was Carnitas or carne asada). Had a salsa bar too.

                        14 Replies
                        1. re: noshie

                          ^^Maui Tacos - an international chain. Pretty average to me. I wish the Big I would be graced by the presence of authentic Mexican food.

                          1. re: hiD

                            No, it wasn't Maui Tacos, which I've been to on Maui and yes it is marginal.

                            I think it was Habaneros.

                            1. re: noshie

                              About 1 year ago I tried Maui Tacos out of curiosity... and didn't like it... over the weekend I gave the store in Kailua another shot (I had a craving for a Rubio's style Lobster Burrito which I was hoping Maui might have some type of version)....

                              Maui Tacos is not Marginal... its TERRIBLE... well at least the food is. Beans from a can... and not good quality canned beans.... terrible institutional beans... the Mahi in the Burrito was very strong tasting and overwhelmed everything else. The Carne Asada plate was the worst I can remember.

                              The silver lining... they actually make their own Jamaica & Horchata that are very acceptable, and I like their Arbol Chile salsa... the Chipotle-Pineapple is not bad... a bit cloyingly sweet & out of balance.

                              Forget about authenticity, highlighting Regional Mexican specialties or taking advantage of great local ingredients... we are talking about not even being able to competently execute basic Cal-Mex fare.

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                Couldn't agree more. Recall the original spot in a Maui strip mall and it was surprsingly decent, if not authentic. You're much better off with a burger from Teddy's next door or across the street at Ba Le.

                                Our Kailua neighbors are from Mexico via California and like a small spot in Kaneohe on Kam Highway behind an Aloha station....about a block or so from the Kaneohe Post Office.

                                1. re: MRMoggie

                                  Thanks for the pointer... I will look out for it.

                                    1. re: manomin

                                      Yes, El Mariachi. It's about the best Mexican food since I've lived in Arizona. It's by an Aloha gas station next to Saigon noodle house, which if you love pho, don't go there. :)

                                  1. re: MRMoggie

                                    El Mariachi

                                    Overall, its an Authentically representative Mexican-American place (meaning the flavors are generally authentic... but the menus, dish compositions, decor, the concept etc., is not something you readily find in Mexico)... its got some dishes that are very representative of something you might eat in Mexico (like the Shrimp in Garlic or Spicy-Garlic sauce, the Ceviche etc.,)... but it mostly has things that would be hard to find in Mexico (like the lame salads with black olives... the Texas style baked Enchiladas smothered in yellow cheese etc.,).

                                    Its very popular & crowded even on a weekday night... so I am glad its doing well and wish them continued success. However, as a Chowhound I can barely recommend it.

                                    The good.... they really do know how to source & grill their shrimp. I can tell from the accents the owners of from somewhere west of Guadalajara (either the Lake Chapala area, the Lerdo River communities or maybe the coastal towns around Puerto Vallarta)... the main line cook is from Sinaloa... both of these parts of the country are well known for their shrimp cookery... and I can bet my left Avocado that shrimp is what they are going to do best.

                                    The mediocre... in Mexico its rare to sit down to plates that pair Rice, Refried Beans, Sour Cream, Guacamole, Shredded Lettuce with Salsa Fresca etc... that is one of the things that doesn't make any of the dishes here truly, authentically representative of Mexico. If I were in Sinaloa for example... I might start the meal with a clear soup made from seafood stock, a few head on shrimp & some sweet, al dente vegetables floating around. That might be followed by a plate of sliced cucumbers & avocado slices marinated in lime juice, chile powder & salt. Then some type of Shrimp dish served with various well made salsas, garlicky white rice maybe a sautee of peppers, onions & white cheese.... and lots of Pacifico Clara etc., Perhaps these are subtle differences to most... but to me that is clear tangible distinction of what makes an Authentic Mexican-American meal versus an Authentic Mexican Mexican meal.

                                    Back to the food... the Fish Ceviche is okay... not anything I would rave about in Cali or in Mex... same with the Beans & the Shredded Beef quesadilla. The Carne Asada just plain sucks... no woodfire, tough 1/2 inch cut of Chuck instead of a juicy Skirt steak grilled over Mesquite (which I believe is Kiawe in Hawaiian?)

                                    But to repeat... they really do know how to grill their Shrimp. I will be back for Shrimp dishes and to further explore the seafood... and of course to implore the owners & cooks to cook a proper Mexican meal for me some day.

                                    -----
                                    El Mariachi
                                    45-1151 Kamehameha Hwy, Kaneohe, HI 96744

                                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                      A 2nd trip to El Mariachi tonight confirmed these cats know how to prepare seafood. As I settled in... I corrected my earlier trip's mistakes and asked the cooks what they would recommend (even if your Spanish is limited or non-existent a simple "maestro que recomienda?" will get you far in any Mexican establishment.

                                      The recommended the Seafood Fajitas and were spot on...

                                      > Carmelized Onions & Mushrooms tossed with Al Dente bell peppers all seasoned with Maggi & maybe a little seafood consomme.. sweet shrimp, scallops & meaty fish (my guess is Ono or some type of Snapper... although I doubt it was Opakapaka it was a little more asservative).... the seafood itself was undersalted and needed to be tossed with the juices on the Iron Plate... easy fix... and the squeeze of lime to sharpen the flavors of course.

                                      Portion size should be good for 2 people... and a pretty good deal for $16.

                                      > Full disclosure.... the Salsa they serve with the chips sucks, as do the tortillas & refried beans... however the Guacamole is quite acceptable.

                                      BUT you MUST ask them for the homemade Habanero Salsa... its a thin, slightly watery, FIERY orange sauce.. very fresh and without a doubt the best restaurant salsa I've tasted on the Islands (its about as good as the similar Habanero salsa I make at home to pair with Cochinita Pibil)... any way once you pour the tiny 1 ounce cup over your Fajitas they will be perfect.

                                      One of the good things about E_M is that its BYOB... so you can make it down to Tamura's to pick up a good beer or wine. I think a well balanced German wine, Belgian white ale or a decent Sparkling wine would be the perfect compliment for such a meal.

                                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                        Also I confirmed the oweners & cooks are from the countryside west of Guadalajara... I asked them about their regional dishes... but they weren't to enthusiastic about serving them up.

                                        CHer Kare_Raisu did a good job covering Guadalajara's regional cuisine on his recent trip: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5298...

                                        Anybody interested... please inundate them with requests for:

                                        Birria (Braised Goat with juices

                                        )

                                        Torta Ahogada (Heavy Sourdough roll stoffed with tender, braised beef... cabbage, good cream & then drowned in a tomato sauce)

                                        Carne en Su Jugo (Braised beef served in its juices with bacon & beans)

                                        Camarones a la Diabla (Whole Shrimp Head On sauteed in a Butter, Garlic, Arbol chile sauce)

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          I've carried out from there many many times. They had a killer lobster rellano one time, just amazing. You're right they are spot on with seafood. The carnitas was good too and lots of it. They have a second location in Aiea.

                                          1. re: manomin

                                            Do you know how the Aiea location compares to Kaneohe?

                                            As good as the Seafood Fajitas were... they also had a plate with invidual Tacos of Lobster, Scallops, Shrimp etc., that way each Taco can taste different.

                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                              No, I have to say I don't drive farther than I have to just down the road to
                                              the Kaneohe location is far enough for me!

                                              I'm too lazy to reply again to another post but EN, you would have really enjoyed El Charro when the original owner was there, he is a dear friend and you would have loved the private parties he threw and made many things that you would have liked that were not on the menu and had entertainment for said parties. He used nopal quite a bit as well. Your requests would have been fulfilled by hiim even if it just meant you were the only one eating it. I have not
                                              been there since he sold and now from the OP it is completely closed.

                                  2. re: Eat_Nopal

                                    Euh-h-h-e, I can do that at home in MY kitchen in AZ, not that I would.

                                    Glad that we did NOT try Maui Tacos on our last trip. We had too much good to very good food, that I would not have wanted to miss any of that, just to give something a try.

                                    Thanks for the warning,

                                    Hunt

                                    [Edit] This appeared down the thread much more than I intended. I was referring to the Maui Tacos, just for clarification.

                            2. El Charro serves very acceptable San Antonio style Tex-Mex.

                              > The Chihuahua style Chile Verde was great... the Pollo con Rajas (Chicken Breast braised in a creamy chile sauce with onions & bell peppers) is quite good.

                              > Rice is pedestrian. Beans are bleh. Tortillas are factory made.

                              > Salsa is made from canned tomatoes.

                              Overall not outstanding... but very acceptable. Might be overpriced compared to Local Food hole in the walls.

                              Oh yeah the proprietress (who does most of the cooking) is really from Honduras... but they don't offer any Honduran dishes yet. I will keep bugging them to add some.

                              1. Just visited the Just Tacos in Pearl City and had the Birria and the pork marinated in citrus juices.... I was really disappointed. Maybe I should've tried the fish. It just tasted like stewed meat on a cold corn tortilla... I was grateful for the salsa bar to hide the horrible taste of the tacos. Thankfully, I was hungry.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Moonie

                                  As I recommended on this thread... you need to get to the Downtown original and have the Shrimp (primarily) and Fish (secondarily) tacos... the Birria is wack... I don't think I've had the Cochinita but I doubt they would do them well. The Downtown shop makes your tortillas from scratch, and batters the shrimp and/or fish the moment you ask for the tacos.

                                2. Ate at Torritos (Market City) last night with a friend. I was not impressed. I ordered Taco's al Pastor (having heard that variety discussed ad nauseum in chowhound). Instead I got the nights special (which i had not noticed) fish tacos al pastor style. I dont know what it was supposed to be, but it wasn't good, and way too much sour cream - a personal peeve. In addition, the rice was uninspiring, and the beans were not made fresh there I am pretty sure. The tortilla chips before the meal were plentiful, but the salsa had that weird texture that only comes from a food processor. Not bad flavor, but pureed salsa isn't my thing. If my friend (who likes the place) insists, I would go back, but not happily.

                                  1. FYI... there is a little Mexican stand at the Mapunapuna Ethnic Village aka as the Ranch 99 Foodcourt... named Rigo's Tacos... its has shown some potential... the regular menu items are fairly mediocre, their service is pretty slow & they are often running out of stuff (more out of poor planning) than due to exhaustive demand & freshness. The daily specials are often good.... the Pan Fried Mahi Tacos are good, the Shrimp a la Diabla are okay (unfortunately they just use a blend of bottled hot sauces instead of making their own buttery, garlicky Arbol sauce)... the Chile Relleno is quite good (but not it is submerged in a thin spicy consomme... so it is of the "soggy" more dumpling like variety).

                                    I have giving the place ample opportunities... and they just can't make a good salsa or beans, and their regular menu tacos are pretty mediocre. I doubt they will improve but I will report (since its so close to the office I get to the MEV almost every week).

                                    1. Wondering if anyone has been to Maria Bonita (15 N. Hotel) in Downtown. I've had some people tell me it's great, others say they would not set food inside the door ever again. I rarely get downtown but would like to try it sometime if it's worthwhile.

                                      7 Replies
                                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                                        No, this is the first I hear of that.. but you know somewhere between Ala Moana mall & Ward... there is a new little place that gave me a good vibe.. they had some kind of old Coca Cola sign that just reminds of Mexico... in addition the name implied they might know what they are doing (ie., it didn't have the usually "Mexican Food" description that most lame, automaton places have)... also the fact that it looked packed was a good sign... I had forgotten about it.. but its on my radar again.

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          When I lived in town I used to eat at El Burrito all the time, it still remains always crowded
                                          it's on Piikoi street right by Kapiolani.

                                          1. re: manomin

                                            Ah thanks for the clarification... I guess they must have just remodeled a little because it has fresh coat of paint (I vaguely remember a key lime green facade). So I presume you liked it... and specializes in Burritos? Any favorite dishes?

                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                              I used to be a real devotee of El Burrito (3-4x per week). Then their food went downhill fast. The last time I went the tin taste was so strong in my enchilada sauce I almost couldn't eat it. Made me want to cry. Perhaps they have gone back to being good, haven't been there since 1994.

                                              I started going there when I walked by once and heard the employees speaking Spanish (unlike other places where they spoke Illocano.)

                                              I went to Toritos a couple of months ago with a friend. They got my order wrong and the food I had was horrible, absolutely horrible. The rice was dried out, the beans were so dry they cracked as they cooled, and the salsa looked like it had been through the blender.

                                              1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                I keep meaning to go - we were regulars in the late 80's - 90's so my word
                                                would not be "valuable" I am sorry to hear that the food went down. Maybe
                                                it's a different family running it, back then it was a lovely family from mom & pop
                                                down to the kids (teens) as servers you could see them cooking from the hallway
                                                door that led to the bathroom. Everything then was from scratch. Since it's an
                                                effort to get town I'll stick with El Mariachi. I did stop at Hank's today since was in town for an order of the onion rings and garlic aioli still amazing and hits the
                                                spot everytime! Viva la Hank's!

                                                1. re: manomin

                                                  yes, the El Burrito you descirbed is the one I was so fond of. Maybe someone else has more up to date data. Much as I enjoy Azteca, and think that Mexico is pretty good, I really miss El Burrito. I am going to try to get downtown next week to try Maria Bonita. After misleading Sr. Nopal a year and a half ago based on second hand reports, I want to try things myself more...LOL

                                                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                    I went to Maria Bonita today, my comments are on the thread started by curiousgeo

                                      2. El Charro on Sand Island Road has closed, apparently very suddenly. Stopped there last week and was disappointed...someone in one of the neighboring places said it had been kind of an "overnight" departure! Too bad...they were not great, but reliable, and one of the better of the thin selection in Honolulu.

                                        1. This is a really good thread!

                                          What happened to Eat_Nopal? I need to write down some of the specific recommendations.

                                          Some comments:

                                          I've been to the PC Just Tacos and I didn't really care for it. It was overpriced with small portions. (I can't remember what I got, but I don't think it was seafood.)

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Jazzaloha

                                            EN was making the best of a bad situation.

                                          2. I assume that your definition of Hawaii is Oahu...I would be interested in what you think of Los Habaneros in Kailua-Kona...just for laughs

                                            -----
                                            Los Habaneros
                                            78-6831 Alii Dr Ste K4, Kailua Kona, HI 96740

                                            1. Tried to go to the Honolulu JT today, but I found out they closed down that location. :(