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May 12, 2009 10:48 PM

Mexican food in Hawaii

Is there any place to get a good taco or burrito in hawaii or do locals not like mexican food?

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  1. check these threads out

    and check out postings by this guy in general:

    I started out with a sarcastic reply, then realized you were serious. A larger than average proportion of people in Hawaii are not all that fond of highly spicy food, so Mexican is not generally on their list of favorites. But obviously that does not apply to everyone. Also a lot of people here just haven't been exposed to good mexican food.

    It would be kind of like trying to find a good Filipino restaurant in Fargo. Even if there were one, how many of the people there would appreciate the difference?

    1 Reply
    1. My initial impressions on the viability of Mexican Restaurants in Hawaii:

      1) Hawaii likes Mexican inspired food... there is a way disproportionately high amount of Mexican & Mexican inspired eateries in Hawaii relative to the Mexican population. Granted many of these are in the Taco Bell, Del Taco, Maui Tacos, Wahoo's vein... but there is clearly interest in Mexican cuisine.

      2) There is not a single Mexican restaurant on Oahu - that I am aware of - that serves as a meeting place for the Mexicans on the island. We are way spread out... there doesn't seem to be any particularly Mexican community at all.

      3) The restaurant business in Hawaii is extra tough. The cost of ingredients are very high, restaurant labor isn't particularly cheap... yet restaurant prices across the board are quite low... the Vietnamese, Thai, Korean & Plate Lunch places can all put ALOT of food, ALOT of protein on the plate for $8... that is what Mexican cooking has to compete against.

      But the problem is that Mexican cuisine tends to be extremly reliant on two things that are very cheap in Mexico, and moderately cheap in California:

      1) Fresh Produce
      2) Labor... not any labor... Knowledgeable Cooks

      Anyone can drench some Teriyaki on short ribs & throw them on a grill, a scoop from the Rice Cooker, a scoop of Mac Salad etc., It takes a bit more skill to make a good Salsa, tortillas, beans etc.,

      4) There aren't any strong Mexican restaurateurs in Hawaii. If you can cook & run an eatery chances are you probably don't need to migrate out of Mexico where any driven entrepreneur can pretty much make an acceptable, graceful living. Even more so than in California, the people that open Mex restaurants in Hawaii have NO restaurant experience in Mexico... and usually don't have the passion or skill to change it up. There are ways to do Mexican successfully here in Hawaii.. but you have to be willing to think out of the box & take risks. Since much of the demand for Mexican here comes from Mainland Haoles who might only be familiar with a certainly style of Americanized Mexican cuisine... its hard to convince them to try dishes they have never heard of using local ingredients... and the Mexican restaurateurs just aren't strong enough or care enough to try to reeducate them.

      Like KM points out... even if there was a great Mexican restaurant here... how many people would even appreciate the difference enough to pay the higher bill? Not to knock on the warm, kind people of Hawaii... but the consumption of processed foods - everything from Spam & Canned Meats to pickled vegetables and even nasty Kalua Pig in a bag - is just so high that its questionable whether most people here would notice the difference between a good, handmade salsa and something out of a jar.

      29 Replies
      1. re: Eat_Nopal

        Okay, I have to pipe up. There is great, authentic Mexican food on Maui, at least! Over the past 5-10 years, the Hispanic population has slowly been growing--to the delight of carne asada and mole fans like myself. (You know you've found a genuine place when they sell phone cards and offer money transfer service to Mexico.) Unfortunately, there aren't any great sit-down restaurants. They're all pretty much take-out counters.

        The exception is one of my faves, Juca in Ma'alaea. Eat Nopal should be advised that they serve steak molcajete--a sumptuous steak and nopal (cactus paddle) dish simmered in tomato sauce and served in a stone pig. (Double points for presentation.) Prices are a little steep here, unfortunately, to compensate for the pricey tourist location.

        My other favorites are:
        Fernando's in the Maui Marketplace--Great enchiladas and decent mole:
        270 Dairy Rd # 164, Kahului, HI - (808) 873-7759

        Cilantro in Lahaina:
        170 Papalaua St # 104
        Lahaina, HI 96761
        (808) 667-5444

        Cilantro's gregarious owner is Middle Eastern, but he traveled throughout the interior of Mexico collecting fabulous salsa recipes. Tortillas are hand-pressed, chicken is slow roasted, and there are no fewer than nine types of chilis used in various dishes.

        Finally, Santa Fe Cantina just opened in Lahaina. I don't particularly care for Santa Fe style food, but the Christmas sauces are authentic and the tamales are fresh and delicious.
        900 Front St # F
        Lahaina, HI 96761
        (808) 667-7805

        Really, that's just scraping the surface. There are others.

        1. re: omaopio

          Thanks... I have heard that Maui is likely the better island for Mexican... do you have any other detail on the counter / hole in the wall type places?

          1. re: omaopio

            ...just ask a Mexican where they go...They are not eating at Cilantro Grill. There's a taco trailer in Honokowai (?) called Ohana Tacos...M-Sat 6pm-10pm....That's where the Mexican population is going.
            Cilantro's is like Baja Fresh on the mainland "Healthy Mexican" if you're into that.
            Fiesta Time has two locations they just re-opened lower Main in Wailuku and Paia. For me, when I visit the Northside "Mana trip" I have to go to FT. Great Salsa.
            It's difficult to eat Mexican Food here in Maui coming from San Diego....I miss carne asada burritos!

          2. re: Eat_Nopal

            Oh com'n brah...yeah kama'aina grind on spam and pig and poi in da bag but other grinds pretty healthy. Most chicken and fish consumed per capita in the U.S. Big kine Asian diet, longest life expectancy also.

            The key to Mexican in Hawaii is education/introduction, palette and price. My guess is if you started a taco truck either in a working area for lunch or like North Shore you'd get the following and intro you need...and then you expand to a regular store front and onto more elaborately prepared items. It would be a 3 year process at least.

            I could totally see a California taco truck in Hawaii, just need to concentrate on a few easy cross-over like carnitas, grilled chicken and fish. Mild salsa as standard but also one with bite and a pina salsa would be perfect. Think shrimp truck but tacos. Sure lots of tourist but if the food is good da locals will show.

            In the long term, I think a regional restro, perhaps a Sinaloa place that focused on seafood and some standards, would be the way to go.

            Re: gathering places, for Japanese, Chinese, Koreans or whoever it's meet for weddings, birthdays and funerals...or church. I'm guessing it's the same with Mexicans as well. No big need to congregate because everyone accepts everyone more or less.

            1. re: ML8000

              I am less optimistic... there is a little Taco stand in the Mapunapuna Ethnic Village (near the Airport)... they are doing good business buts its all starch & glop... they quit offering Ahi tacos because they had to give it all away to the other vendors. Even the pan fried Mahi tacos (which were very good) failed. I still don't understand why... I would think they would be good cross over dishes.

              Their military customer base seems to order mostly burritos. The locals (primarily Filipinos, Hawaiian, Samoan & Palauan) seem to go for the Chimichangas & other fried, starchy stuff. Only the haole business crowd seems to order the tacos.

              The only people ordering any of the half way interesting dishes was me & another Mexican (middle age guy who grew up in Michoacan of Italian ancestry).

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                I should qualify that... I mean to say that Authentic / Specialized / Regional Mexican has less of a chance succeeding with the established Local community. I could absolutely see a higher level of Mexican cooking suceeding in Kailua where there is a bigger base of California & Texas ex pats.... and then slowly trying to cross over to the locals palette.

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  I wonder about the fish tacos. There have been several threads on where to find these. The setting is right, even if the palms are a bit different. Mahi-mahi is a fish that lends itself to good fish tacos. Though I am much less a fan of that fish, I have had and made some great fish tacos with it. I'd trade a really good one, for mahi-mahi from all but the best chefs in Hawai`i.

                  Sorry to hear that they did not fly, but thanks for reporting. Even though I do not seek out Mexican/Mexican-inspired food in the Islands, I have no problem, should I find it. Heck, I still look for great Mexican in AZ and we are SO-O-O close.



                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    Aloha... it sure was puzzling as those Mahi Tacos where probably the best dish they had going. These were pan fried with a very tiny amount of flour providing browning & crisp while keeping them juicy (as compared to the dry grilled Mahi we often get at a mainland chains like Wahoo's and the one from Seattle).

                    People prefer their chewy griddled & slightly dry Chuck "Carne Asada" tacos over the Mahi... quite confusing.

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      Like you said, its the haole people who are most likely to appreciate better mexican food, but they are not going to be out near the airport. Thats all light industrial, local kine guys eating at Byron's. Occasionally Mitch's (locals DO know good fresh fish when they taste it). I've never even heard of it. I don't even know what the 'mapunapuna ethnic village' is. Is that where 99 ranch market used to be?

                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                        Yup... 99 Ranch... I know, I am the only person that refers to it by its formal name.

                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                          don't feel bad, i know lots of people who talk about things in relation to long gone places (oh, "its by Liberty House", or "turn left by the old police station" "demolished a decade or more ago])

                          so I gather from your posting that the taco stand isn't much good any more.

                          sadly there is a place near me ('Mulvadi Cafe') that is headed down the same path. people here seem to get upset if mexican food doesn't taste like taco bell.

                          1. re: KaimukiMan

                            Yeah the food has slid... part of it is because the Aunt (who was visiting from Sinaloa) is back home... and the nephew & daughter don't seem to have the same passion. The other part is that market forces are shaping the menu. Aside from that, its never run smoothly... they are always running out of stuff & don't have a good work flow down (i.e., they are slow as piloncillo syrup).

                        2. re: KaimukiMan

                          BTW.. how is Caliente del Sol? After eating at Formaggio Grill I can't say that I am in a hurry to try their Mex eatery... but is it succeeding?

                          No doubt Kaimuki is the place for Mexican to make it. That is the best concentration of good eating for non-tourists on the island.

                          1. re: Eat_Nopal

                            I enjoyed Caliente del Sol, while it qualifies as "south of the border", I'm not sure I would call it Mexican. Of course, like "American" food, "Mexican" food has such a range of expression depending on the region. The food was fresh, the salsas were not just blended glop, and the flavors were good. I haven't been to Formaggio, but found Caliente del Sol, Good to Grill, and Burgers on the Edge all to be pretty good food, slightly on the pricey side for what you get (2 of us at Burgers on the Edge = $32)

                            Were your comments above about Mulvadi? or the taco stand at ranch market? Have you tried Diego's (across from Longs) in Moiliili?

                            For Kaimuki I'm gonna mostly stick to Azteca. Have never had a decent meal at Jose's, was not impressed by La Bamba (is it even open?), and last time I was at Torritos it was really awful. I will probably give Mulvadi another couple of tries. The folks there are nice, they are two blocks from where I live, and the owners live in my building.

                            1. re: KaimukiMan

                              Lets see... comments were about the taco stand at Ranch 99. Haven't tried Diego's or Mulvadi.... I am putting them on the list.

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                Diego's is a small place, one step above a taco stand. they sell tacos that are more what I would call taquitos. they just put a banner out for a $5 burrito, but haven't gotten by there to try it...

                                Mulvadi used to have a good green chili stew, but apparently they don't have it any more. the other food i tried was ok, but not great.

                                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                  Had a late lunch at Mulvadi. The carne asada burrito was pretty good, the frijoles refritos as well. the rice is the chef's adaptation of PR "dirty rice". I'm not gonna say it was the best south of the border food I've ever had, but I thought it was pretty tasty all in all.

                                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                                    "the rice is the chef's adaptation of PR "dirty rice"

                                    Ah... Moros y Cristianos.... is he trying to do a PR bent or does he have roots in South East Mexico, I wonder?

                                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                      he said it was a variation based on his grandmother's recipe. I've not asked his ethnic mix, but clearly not haole. apparently he has lived in various places and picked up his cooking skills as he moved around. The meal I had today was superior to the previous meals. It could be because I was finally able to get around to lunch at about quarter to 3, or it could be because I was there earlier than previous times which was for a late dinner, and the food (ie rice, beans) was undoubtedly fresher. The rice was really good. It appears to be a very eclectic menu.

                                      As UH gets out this week they are waiting to see how busy they will be over the summer break, but summer session starts in early June....

                                      At some point there was a connection with "it's chili in hawaii" but for whatever reasons that connection no longer exists.

                                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                        the owner got inspired one evening and changed the restaurant from mexican to "irish-mexican" and brought in a whole new crew. The former people he brought in to run the place are no longer there, and I am more than trepadacious about going anyplace that claims to have irish-mexican food, whatever that means. i suspect there is a lot more to the story, but I don't need to be dragged into whatever drama is behind it.

                                  2. re: KaimukiMan

                                    The food at Jose's isn't at all good but I love the atmosphere. Dim, cool, quiet if you come during the day. Big soft booths. Eating there relaxes me.

                                    As I recall, Azteca has better food, but you have to eat it in noisy, too brightly lit surroundings. But it's been a while since I've been to Azteca, so it might have changed.

                                    1. re: Felila

                                      no, that pretty much sums it up. i would rather eat good food in a less pleasant environment than bad food in a nicer environment, but to each their own.

                                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                                        That sums it up pretty good. I've never heard any positive feedback from any of my friends living in Hawaii about the Mexican food there. I guess the locals are more acclimated to plate lunches rather than to tacos and burritos? For me, I definitely love a tasty wet carne burrito smothered with cheese and salsa with a basket of deep fried tortilla chips! But that's me...

                            2. re: Bill Hunt

                              There are awesome fish tacos on Maui at:

                              Fiesta Time (two locations--one in Wailuku on Lwr Main and one in Paia on Hana Hwy)--though, I have to add my sour grapes: the food was better with the previous owner. He moved back to Mexico. :(

                              Pinatas (Dairy Road, Kahului, next to Kinko's)--gringo owners, Mexican cooks. The fish is battered in cilantro and chili. It is hot and delicious. The fresh salsa bar is awesome.


                              Milagros (Paia, corner of Baldwin and Hana Hwy)--caveat: I never eat here at night, because the fish tacos are $10 at lunch and $14 at dinner. Uh, what?! Still, I looove their unique take on ahi tacos: jack cheese and sweet chili sauce. You wouldn't think it would taste so good. Plus, their awesome tequila menu makes the trip double worth it.

                              I've lived in both San Diego and SF's Mission District and traveled throughout Mexico. Mexican food varies greatly--each locale puts its own spin on it. I love San Diego's carne asada burritos and SF Mission-style burritos. In Mexico, you can't even find a burrito! Mole is the dish I miss most. There's a decent (but not exemplary) mole dish at Fernando's in the Maui Marketplace.

                              Other hole-in-the-walls: the place in Dolphin Plaza in Kihei was recently taken over by new owners. I've only eaten there once, so I can't say for sure whether it's worth it.

                              Musubi: regarding Cilantro. It is WAAAAY superior to Baja Fresh and similar places. The recipes are authentic and the ingredients are amazing. Seriously. Check out the chili tubs above the cash register. Can you name more than four? The salsa bar is out of this world. The spicy jicama slaw is so good I always order extra to take home.

                            3. re: Eat_Nopal

                              I think the fish angle is the way to go...or shrimp tacos. However if they aren't selling, well what the heck. You might need to do a little branding and call them Hawaiian fish tacos, pina salsa, etc...and serve another couple of more authentic items. Shrimp tacos however might be the big cross over. I don't know how much tacos are in HI now but 3 for $5 seems cheap enough to me. How about Baja fish tacos, battered and deep fried...fried food is loved everywhere and in HI a lot.

                              1. re: ML8000

                                Very good Baja Style Fish & Shrimp Tacos (straight out of the fryer with housemade tortillas) are doing well at Just Tacos in Downtown. The guy is from TJ and knows what he is doing. The more well to do downtown office crowd has adapted much quicker than the lower brow folk. However, there is no chowhound would order anything but the Shrimp and/or Fish tacos there... but this place had to add Chimichangas & mediocre Tamales & Combo plates to survive. C'est la vie.

                            4. re: ML8000

                              Funny thing this comes up as I was just in Honolulu last week and had a great talk with a man originally from Southern CA (land of delicious Mexican Food) who was lamenting the dearth of good Mexican restaurants on O'ahu. So far he has found just one that he likes - a family run place on Kapahulu Ave. Of course, I can't recall the name of it! But it's closeby a Thai Restaurant and it should be easy to find. . .
                              As far as taco trucks - back in the 70s some friends of mine had a couple of taco trucks serving fresh, homemade tacos & burritos at Sunset Beach and Laniakea. The clientele was mostly surfers - both mainland transplants and locals.

                              1. re: howesit

                                Thats funny having lived almost all my life in Southern CA, I always lamented the dearth of good Mexican restaurants or ingredients there... but alas L.A. & S.D. little by little are starting to get more interesting, specialized Mexican eateries that are almost good enough to survive in Mexico =)

                            5. I was at "Mexico" restaurant for lunch with a friend today. I had a combo with one tamale and one chiie relleno. The service was good, and I really enjoyed my relleno. The tamale on the other hand was not so good. It was served on a corn husk, not wrapped in one, but more to the point the texture was quite odd, very highly compressed, more like fishcake than masa. My friend, who also had the tamale described his as "rubbery."

                              It looked like they had taken machine made tamale "dough" that had been rolled into sheets, spread a layer of filling on it, then topped it with another layer of dough. I didn't have my glasses with me, but I looked and on the top piece of dough, I could not see the telltale sign of corduroy-like ribbing that corn husk typically leaves behind.

                              I was hungry, and while it wasn't good, it wasn't horrible. I didn't really think of complaining till my plate was being cleared. I told the server that I was really disappointed, and contrary to the menu description, it didn't taste anything like something made by someone's abuela - more like a product they had shipped in from LA. He assured me that it had been made on premises. I replied that it sure didn't seem like it to me, and it was nowhere near as good as other tamales I have had there (while the last one I had was a little dried out on one edge, at least it tasted like a fresh product.)

                              I was pleasantly surprised when the manager came over a few moments later to ask what was wrong. I gave him the same description, and again was assured that it was made in house. He also asked if we wanted a complimentary dessert, which I thought was very generous as my friend and I had eaten the tamales. I declined, and thanked him for the offer.

                              So how do I tell if a tamale is really "home made" or not? Other tamales I have eaten had a very distinct texture to them. There is a mealiness, a course texture, a lightness that was totally missing in this. It was as if this was made out of a mixture of ultra fine masa harina and flour. It was dense and without texture. Almost like a extra-extra thick noodle.

                              Any comments would be appreciated.

                              Oh, I will be going back. There is a distinct lack of quality Mexican Food in Honolulu. Not only was the rest of my meal very good, but I have no reason to complain about the response of the restaurant - other than being skeptical about their claim that the tamale was made in house in a traditional manner.