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Oct 4, 2010 01:12 PM

Mexican Food on O'ahu

Unless you're visiting from some place where Taco Bell is the only Mexican restaurant, I rank Mexican restaurants on O'ahu as a low priority. They're not all terrible, but of the good ones, they're all about the same, decent-but-not-that-great level. (I'd love to be proven wrong about this!) Then again, I wonder if the problem is that I'm not a huge fan of Mexican food.

So what are some of the Mexican restaurants people really like on O'ahu? Are there any new spots?

Has anyone been to *La Familia* (or something like that) in Waipahu? I've heard that they serve goat. And has anyone been to this place on the Windward side called, *Los Tres Hombres*? An experienced eater of Mexican food raved about this place, but I never was able to find it.

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  1. Have you tried Serg's Kitchen in Manoa? I've heard it's good but haven't gotten around to giving it a try yet. I agree with your statement about Mexican food in Hawaii being generally poor to decent at best.

    1 Reply
    1. re: curiousgeo

      No, I haven't, but maybe I'll give it a try.

    2. I like El Mariachi in Kaneohe. I've never eaten in the restaurant itself only carry out.

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

      1. I've tried most of the ones in town, here is a quick rundown of my impressions:

        Azteca: I still think this is the best place in Honolulu, but i know of other people who think it's not so great. Very much "old california" style mexican.

        Jose's: One of the favorites for many people, I generally decline to join friends who are going there, i think its horrible.

        Toritos, Kaimuki: Went on the advice of friends and comments in here. I wasn't impressed. This seems to be more favored by tex-mex fans.

        Los Chaparros, Beretania: Meh, nothing special. One of my friends really likes it. I got turned off by the ceviche there.

        Serge's, Manoa: Not bad for a glorified taco stand. Been twice, will probably go back occasionally.

        Mexico Restaurant, Kalihi: Second best after Azteca, used to be better.

        Tacos Ricos, Kapahulu: Been twice. First time was great, second time not so good. Wildly inconsistent, and the reviews in various venues reflect that as well.

        El Burrito, Piikoi: I remember when this place was good. A long time ago. I haven't been back in years and years, but the last few times I went, it was really disappointing.

        Among the closed: El Charro wasn't bad, but wasn't just great. La Bamba had a loyal following, I wasn't that impressed.

        It surprises me that mexican isn't more popular here, but a lot of local people really dislike it strongly. And these are people who seem to like Thai or Vietnamese, so its not just the spiciness. Perhaps the oregano? I dunno. The climate here is so much like the range of climates you find in Mexico that the ingredients shouldn't be a problem. Go figure.

        P.S. I was raised in Northern California with mexican food that was big on beef, beans, rice and tortillas. Mexican Seafood? Tex-Mex? Never heard of them. It was not the same as what you find most places in LA now, although some of the older places on Olivera Street in LA serve similar food.

        Los Chaparros
        2140 S Beretania St, Honolulu, HI 96826

        El Burrito
        550 Piikoi St, Honolulu, HI 96814

        La Bamba
        847 Kapahulu Ave, Honolulu, HI 96816

        3 Replies
        1. re: KaimukiMan


          I'm sort of with Joebob on this. Most of the locals I know either like Mexican food or at least don't hate it. Also, don't you think there are too many Mexican restaurants on O'ahu to say that it's not more popular?

          What puzzles me is why a really good Mexican cook hasn't come to O'ahu and opened up a restaurant. Whoever does that would make a fortune, imo, precisely because they are so few really outstanding Mexican places.

          I went to Azteca at least once, and I liked it, but again, nothing that stood out among the rest. Ditto Quintero's, which is now closed.

          Btw, I don't when you were in NorCal, but have you been to Dos Coyotes in Davis/Sacto? I loved their burritos.

          1. re: Jazzaloha

            Eat_Nopal wanted to open a good place when he was here, but then he moved to SF (I understand).

            1. re: Jazzaloha

              A good friend of mine worked for a woman who's husband ran successfull mexican restaurants in California. He opened one, Pedro's, in Hawaii Kai. He had a lot of trouble getting ingredients, and it was never a financial success in spite of a decent location. He said local people don't like the flavor of authentic mexican food. They would rather have taco bell or compadres (bleah.)

          2. My impression is that the locals hate it because Mex. food here is crap. Been to La Familia; the tongue tacos had tongue, but that was all. No other flavors. Tacos Ricos and the truck downtown both have serious flaws; again, not enough SABOR.

            I wasn't going to write about this place because I have only been once, and I want to go twice at least before I let others know. HOWEVER, we ate the chille relleno and the chicken in mole at El Charro Mexicano Aiea Rest. (99-115 Aiea Hts. Dr., next to Aiea Bowl, 3rd floor of the shopping center, NE corner of Aiea Heights Drive and Moanalua Rd., 488-9727. M-Th 11-10, F&S 10-11. Sun. 11-8). Both dishes were real (Tex)Mex. We will be back when we want Mex. food.

            Also FYI, there is another new Mex. place; 11th Ave. Mexitlan (no, not a misprint) Grill (1237 11th Ave., 11-9 every day, 737-5678, BYOB, NO CORKAGE FEE). In back of Big City Diner with a chef straight from Baja they say. Haven't been yet.

            Big City Diner
            3569 Waialae Ave Ste 3, Honolulu, HI 96816

            23 Replies
            1. re: Joebob

              I like Mole and chille relleno, so I look forward to trying this place, Joe. Thanks!

              And thanks everyone for the reviews. One request: can you guys mention the items to order at places you've like (or items to avoid)?

              1. re: Joebob

                thats fine if you like tex mex. But tex mex is no more real mexican than McCully Chop Suey was authentic chinese.

                1. re: KaimukiMan

                  Well, that depends. Mexico is a large, and diverse country. Each state has several specialties, and many carry the same name, but would never be confused for each other.

                  If one just takes the Mexican-US border, from TX to CA, one will find extreme variations. Much of the Mexican food that has crossed the border with TX is authentic Mexican, but is not even close to that that one would find in San Ysidro.

                  If one ventures to Monterey, they will find that the cuisine has changed. Same for the State of Jalisco, or down to Vera Cruz. Same for La Paz.

                  Some of the differences are due to ingredients. Some is cultural. Some is predicated on tastes, such as the border areas and the residents of the US crossing the border and dining.

                  I've dined though much of the country of Mexico, and though I really enjoy the Indio influence in New Mexico, Tex-Mex is the paradigm, by which I judge "Mexican" food. Nuevo Larado has some of the best on Earth, though others would prefer the Baja Mexican, south of CA.

                  The vast majority of the Mexican restaurants in Phoenix are Sonoran, with more light, tomato sauces, and a tad more seafood, than one will find in Tex-Mex. Onions are more often raw, while they are cooked into the dishes with Tex-Mex. Luckily, we do have a few Mexican restaurants, representing other States, like Jalisco, but they are few, and far between. Same for Tex-Mex, very few, but then we are much closer to Sonora, and have more immigrants from Sonora, so a greater representation.

                  Now, back to the regularly-scheduled program. In Hawai`i, I cannot recall in 30 years having Mexican food, from any state. I have zero personal experience.

                  There was a thread, about 18 mos. ago, started by Eat Nopal, when s/he moved to Hawai`i, and began the search for "good" Mexican food on O`ahu. Do not recall where Eat Nopal was from (state in Mexico), or even what the positive restaurants were.

                  I find that "Mexican food" is rather like "Indian food." It is on the taste buds of the diner. It is very regional, and open to individual interpretation. What I might love, may well not play with the CA crowd. What they hold dear, might do nothing for me. Even something as simple as salsa can be very different. In CA, it's all about large chunks of tomato, where in Tex-Mex, it's a much more pureed dish, and often with roasted chilis, blended in. The first would be typified as pico de gallo in many places, and is scooped, where the Tex-Mex variety is dipped. It is all about "state," and "state of mind."


                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    Heck, Eat Nopal's original post was right here:

                    Since it has floated to the top of the heap, I assume that all interested parties have already found it, but it might be helpful to others, in years to come.


                2. re: Joebob

                  Now we've been to Mexitlan Grill, a strange place. The chille relleno was a big poblano that was thickly battered. When it was ordered, they asked if I wanted it filled with beef or chicken. I wanted Mexican cheese. They were able to comply. It came with a little cojito and to-and-fro squiggles of crema from a squeeze bottle. In the center was a few pickled onion slivers and chopped cilantro. It looked very pretty and tasted OK.

                  The chicken mole was a double small breast that had been grilled too long and was somewhat dry. There was very little mole sauce, which had a nice bit of heat, but was definitely fruit flavored. Also present was some pineapple chunks and baby corn, the first time that's ever happened. The rice was moist, but otherwise unimpressive.

                  The food was well plated, but not cheap: about $17.95 for each plate. I don't mean to be cruel, but my overall impression was that a so-so Baja chef was told that Hawaiians don't know much about Mexican food, so why not go over here and cook. He did.

                  El Charro in Aiea is better for less.

                  1. re: Joebob

                    OK, so we gave El Charro a try.

                    We got the mole, chile relleno and a combination plate (tamales, flauta and something else that I can't recall right now.)

                    I enjoyed the relleno, particularly the flavor of the poblano. The mole was little disappointing because the chicken was a little dry and tasted like frozen boneless chicken. The mole sauce was just OK, I thought. The beans and rice were kinda bland.

                    The other dishes were OK.

                    1. re: Joebob

                      11th Ave. Mexitlan is now closed.! I too have same background as Kaimuki Man..I am native californian and lived in East Lost Angeles. Ate in the barrios of ELA. Best place in Honolulu is Azteca. Iv'e tried them all and only eat at Azteca. I wish a real authentic Mexican Restaurant would come to Honolulu. The worst place is Mexico in Kalihi. I think many locals are not familiar with real good mexican and think its like "taco bell."

                      1. re: hawaiisrfn

                        Has El Char(it?)o in Aiea gone bad since it opened? What about Luibueno?

                        1. re: Joebob

                          I recently visited Luibueno. I liked the fish, but the other items weren't that great (calamari; can't remember what else). Oh, they did have a seafood pot pie that was also solid.

                          1. re: Jazzaloha

                            I'd heard it is kinda expensive. That true?

                            1. re: Joebob

                              I went at lunch and it was most reasonable for the quality of the ingredients and the well thought flavor profiles of each dish.

                              1. re: manomin

                                Anyone try El Palenque in Wahiawa? Looks really scary from the outside.

                                El Palenque
                                177 S Kamehameha Hwy, Wahiawa, HI 96786

                                1. re: hawaiisrfn

                                  I've been there, but it was a while ago. I thought it was decent, but nothing outstanding.

                              2. re: Joebob

                                The fish dish was around $23. Btw, they offer four different preparations. I don't know how Mexican the preparations are, but the one I got (dang, I can't remember exactly what it was) was good. It also came with this sauteed (in chili oil?) vegetables that were also good. I'm not sure it's worth the drive, but if I lived closer, I'd probably go here.

                                1. re: Jazzaloha

                                  I know I'm being cheap, but I can get 10 good tacos at Diego's for $15.

                                  1. re: Joebob

                                    Diego's is great for basic average + taco's.

                                    Luibueno's (Hale'iwa) is in another class by it self when it comes to making Fresh Fish Taco's the traditional way.
                                    No comparison.
                                    Like comparing a BigMac to a Teddy's Hamburger.

                                      1. re: russkar


                                        Well-stated. Those were our feelings exactly.



                                        1. re: russkar

                                          I agree with you russkar - their tacos are very authentic and comprised of quality ingredients and the freshest fish. They even have "fish market"
                                          in their name as they sell fish on ice as well.

                                    1. re: Joebob


                                      We did not think so, but only did the fish tacos three-ways, plus a few sides, and wines. I thought that the prices were OK, but remember, we are Mainlanders, so maybe did not pick up on that.


                                    2. re: Jazzaloha

                                      We only did the fish tacos, thee ways, with a few sides, and those were all good.

                                      The wine list is limited, but well-suited for the fare. If you go with one of their interesting whites, please tell the server that you do NOT want chilled glasses, and that you DO want large-bowl glasses. He/she will be glad to accommodate you.

                                      Hope to explore much more of their menu, on next North Shore trip.


                                  2. re: hawaiisrfn

                                    When it opened Mexico was very good, but it has been continually slipping since then. My vote for worst would be Jose's in Kaimuki . . . although they do have good margaritas (or used to)

                                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                                      OH I totally agree..Jose's in Kaimuki is the worst. Tried it once and was my last.

                                2. i'm a big fan of Serg's in's the only mexican food around here i actually WANT - i think these guys do straight up good food. some offerings here that you don't usually see around like chilaquiles (fried up chips and beef - chips get kind of soggy and it forms a casserole of sorts - pretty tasty) and the rajas con queso (essentially roasted poblano nachos - roast peppers with sour cream, corn, pico, queso fresco -- VERY delicious )....most everything there is solid, the flautas are huge and delicious...carnitas are good, i've had the veggie burrito which i quite enjoy (squash, onions, etc - good flavor - not the generic green bell pepper dominated typical veggie burrito flavor BS). Besides having solid food all around, Serg's gets MAJOR PROPs for their rice and beans. Virtually Every other restaurant mentioned above has very average to bad rice (dry, boring flavors) and beans (watery, underseasoned). at Serg's, these are not an afterthought. his rice is awesome - moist, well fact, its easily the best mex rice i've had anywhere matched only my mexican friend's grandma's rice (which was revelatory - OH! thats what mexican rice is supposed to be )...and the beans are refried black beans topped with some cotija. good stuff.

                                  I feel like this is the only place that does truly "good food" among the mex restaurants i've been to here. its not just some BS stewed meat wrapped in a tortilla and slopped with cream cheese. i feel like these guys have some touch, and use mama's recipes with no short cuts - and you can taste it. and their little salsa bar is pretty tight, too. their hot avocado salsa (creamy, fresh, not super hot but its got a little kick) and hot arbol salsa (the dried arbols are really up front here) are my favorite....there's usually 4 others or so....

                                  anyway, i havent even come close to sampling the whole menu, but everything i've had i've quite enjoyed...

                                  and its all outside, essentially a taco stand as curiousgeo mentioned...which keeps your costs down . but unfortunately keep the waste generated very high. totally bums me out how much plastic is tossed here (and most other mom'n'pops on the isle)

                                  anyway - SERG'S .... my pick.

                                  14 Replies
                                  1. re: fatstern

                                    Thanks for the review. Hopefully I'll remember to try the rajas con queso when I check this place out.

                                    Btw, Soul serves chiliquiles on Sundays, but it's probably not authentic. (They serve it with their vegetarian chili.)

                                    1. re: Jazzaloha

                                      We ordered the rajas con queso tonight and enjoyed it. The rice was good. It was very flavorful and not too dry. It reminded me a lot of a gandule rice (sans the pork). Yes, it is one of the better rice I've had at Mexican restaurants on O'ahu.

                                      I got the grilled chicken tacos for the kids, but I found the chicken a bit salty and dry. I liked the charred flavor, though.

                                      Of the sauces I tried, I thought the chipotle was decent.

                                      For dessert we tried the flan--which had a nice heavy density, and some coconut. (It reminded me of haupia.)

                                    2. re: fatstern

                                      just thought i'd mention that if you tell the folks at serg's that you are dining "in", the food is now served on what looks like a recycled/biodegradable plate, substantially cutting down on waste. glad they went that route.

                                      popped over there for sat lunch a couple weeks ago and got the chicken tostadas...and holy crap these were just soulful and delicious. simple prep, as tostadas are, but just way the hell better than anywhere else...crispy corn tortillas (2), their excellent refried black beans, a few veggies, some sour cream, and some really moist and flavorful stewed/pulled chicken. so, so good.

                                      1. re: fatstern

                                        I'm dying to try Zarataz Mexicatessan off Kapahulu by Safeway. Just so darn hard to get over the hill. Nothing but raves and great things from people who know!

                                        1. re: manomin

                                          Im ashamed, a few blocks away and I haven't heard of it. i know where im eating lunch wednesday. thanks manomin!

                                          (i just hope this isn't another tacos ricos... what a disappointment that turned into)

                                          1. re: KaimukiMan

                                            Don't know about Tacos ricos but lots of my friends who are chefs and restaurant people just love Zarataz. Let me know! I need to make a trek all the way over there to enjoy his food sometime. You know us windward people and the drive over the hill - especially to the Kapahulu area!

                                            1. re: manomin

                                              If Zarataz is the truck, I was disapointed somewhat when I stopped by several months ago. I thought there was too much meat on each taco and it was chopped up too fine. I told the boss what I thought by email. Is the meat any chunkier now?
                                              My new favorite is Diego's Taco Shop on Kam Hwy. about a block East of Souvaley Thai (same side of the street). It is a real hole in the wall in a small strip mall, closed Sunday. It is the closest to what we got in Fort Worth, and they have lengue, my wife's favorite.

                                              1. re: Joebob

                                                ended up without a lunch break today, but will try to get there soon.

                                                1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                  I've not been personally to Zarataz but lots of friends have. Remember EatNopal? He likes them I saw some of his tweets. I miss his input on here!

                                                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                    I look forward you learning your opinion.

                                                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                      I look forward to learning your opinion.

                                                      1. re: Joebob

                                                        Me too!

                                                        Btw, Joebob. The wife and I went back to the Mexican place next to Aiea Bowl. Loved the chili relleno!

                                                        1. re: Jazzaloha

                                                          Thanks for the "feedback". Did I say I liked the mole recipe thay used when they opened (things can have a way of changing over time, can't they...)?

                                                          If you liked that place, Diego's isn't much further West.

                                                          1. re: Jazzaloha

                                                            Glad you liked it Jazz. Sad to report, Diego's no longer offers lengue. "Not enough sales. Too much trouble". Where were you guys?