I hear it all the time — and usually from people who have lived in California.
“There’s no good Mexican food in Hawaii.”
But is that really true?
And if it is, why?
I don’t claim to be a Mexican food aficionado. I’ve never been to Mexico — or even near the border — and I grew up eating burritos and nachos from Taco Bell. Like most north-of-the-border Americans — worse, in my case, since I live on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — I probably never had real, authentic Mexican food.
The short time I had lived in Chicago about 15 years ago, I remember eating at a Mexican restaurant run by actual Mexicans who, for whatever reason, had immigrated to one of the nation’s coldest cities in the winter. And the experience of eating fresh tortilla, carne asada packed with spices, and a mole sauce that smacked me in the face with flavor, oh, I got it.
Mexican food was something I started to crave.
So when I moved back to Honolulu in 2000, I was on a mission to eat — and then cook — whatever Mexican dishes I could get my hands on.
And it’s not like I was entirely disappointed.
There have been great little Mexican finds in town, starting with Azteca Mexican Restaurant in Kaimuki (above), which serves consistently good, homestyle Mexican food. (Plus, the owners are incredibly nice.) And you can’t beat the $1.50 tacos at Serg’s Mexican Kitchen in Manoa, if not for the price alone. (Though battling college kids for them isn’t fun.)
There’s also Zaratez Mexicatessen on South King Street with its carne asada burrito, Maria Bonita in Chinatown with its taqueria, and Mexico in Kalihi with frozen margaritas that don’t skimp on tequila.
I’d say that’s not a bad lineup.
Still, people complain all the time that Hawaii doesn’t have any good, real, authentic Mexican food.
So what about it? What makes Mexican food good? Or real? Or authentic? Do we have good, real, authentic other kinds of foods, like Korean or Indian?
I feel like food, in general, is so regional and personal. One cook’s version of salsa may not be similar to another’s, and really, what we’re comparing are things we’re familiar with — not necessarily the authenticity of the dish. Meaning, I’ll always think my grandma’s version of vinha d’alhos, a Portuguese pork dish, is superior to all others. But it might not be authentic — and it might not be one that others will like.
So I’m throwing it out there: is it fair to criticize one person’s interpretation of, say, Mexican food? Or do we really have lousy palettes for it?