FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mexico Restaurant in Kalihi offers a fish dish called Acapulco Pescado, made with charbroiled swordfish seasoned with paprika and oregano, served with papaya and avocado salsa.
Chocolate and vanilla - Mexican foods? Yup. When Cortes came to Mexico in the 16th century, chocolate was considered a drink for nobles, and became the basis for those tasty "mole" ("mixture") dishes so many of us love.
Former Kaneohe resident Jim Peyton, in his book "Jim Peyton's New Cooking from Old Mexico," names other indigenous ingredients - corn, squash, beans and chiles (with an "e," to distinguish the plant from the dish, chili, spelled with an "i").
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL /
La Familia Restaurants' birria, or goat, is eaten taco-style and is served with corn tortillas, cilantro, onion, lime, jalapeno peppers, rice and beans. It sells for $10.99.
"Most food was cooked over coals, smoked in pits (as in the Hawaiian imu), or simmered in pots with water," says Peyton. "Frying was virtually nonexistent, undoubtedly because there was no fat to fry with." Originally there were no cows, pigs or chickens, so this produced a low-fat and almost vegetarian diet.
Various food references note that this changed somewhat as Spanish, African and French influences entered the cuisine, and later, with the melding of Mexican with the styles of California, Arizona/New Mexico and Texas to make Cal-Mex, Sonoran and Tex-Mex cuisine.
The result? A "blended" cuisine that's also highly regionalized.
"The Mexican style of cooking is usually done with slower cooking times, layering of flavors, and extracting those flavors from the slow cooking process," explained Jacqueline Lau, corporate chef for Roy's Restaurants Hawaii, who learned from generations of Mexican women in her family. "And most times, nothing is wasted."
Jose Aguila, co-owner of La Familia Restaurants in Waipahu, agrees. "Our ingredients have less fat, and they're fresh. Some dishes take a long time to cook because we cook the meat separately from the sauce, and then combine the meat broth with the sauce to make the dish more tasty."
His wife, Blanca, talks about the importance of the various chiles in Mexican cooking (more than 60 fresh and dried varieties): "I think they helped preserve the flavor of the food in the old days, and there are so many different varieties, they give the food a lot of color."
So with 31 Mexican states and at least five major regions, each with unique specialties (Cabrito al Pastor from the north, Cemitas from the center, Mole Negro from the south, Huachinango Veracruzano and other seafoods from the Gulf Coast, Cochinita Pibil from the Yucatan or Pozole from the Pacific Coast), you don't need to stick with tacos anymore.
MIKE BURLEY / MBURLEY@STARBULLETIN.COM
Victor Rivera cooks the chicken for a dish of Pollo Con Rajas at El Charro Mexican Restaurant.
El Charro Mexican Restaurant
» 111 Sand Island Access Road, Kalihi
» Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
The dish: Owner Ada Galeas found the recipe for Pollo Con Rajas (Chicken with Slices) in a Mexican magazine and decided to tinker with it by adding chipotle peppers and heavy cream. The result was a "perfect" sauce, according to her manager and translator, Victor Rivera, 34.
"I don't think any other restaurant makes this dish," Rivera said. "I always recommend this when people want something unique."
Slices of chicken are first sauteed, then the chipotle, cream, sour cream and butter are added, along with slices of sauteed onions and poblano peppers. A garnish of salsa fresca (fresh sauce) is added, along with lettuce, guacamole and pico de gallo (a sauce of chopped tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, onions, cilantro, lemon and salt).
The tasty dish is served with refried beans, soft tortilla wraps (corn or flour), and Mexican rice (white rice cooked in tomato sauce, onions, butter and achiote seasoning).
The restaurant: Galeas, 53, came to Hawaii from San Pedro in Honduras as a nanny for a family that moved here in 1991. As the children grew up, Galeas found a job as a cook's helper with the original Mexican owner of El Charro ("The Cowboy") who taught her to cook in the Tex-Mex style of San Antonio.
When the restaurant came up for sale three years ago, Galeas and her daughter, Danery, 29 (for whom Galeas has named a huge chicken salad), decided to buy it (Danery is now in the restaurant business in California).
Her twin sons, Roberto and Ramon, both 26, and her 11-year-old granddaughter Odalis help out when they can, and she has two other employees.
"I enjoy everything about cooking for others," Galeas said. "I like it when people have nice things to say about my food.
"I don't mind working hard for the business," she said. (She does all her own shopping and gets in at 7 a.m. six days a week to prep the food). "I even offer some Puerto Rican dishes such as Gandules (rice with beans) and Tostones (deep-fried bananas) that folks can try if they want something different."
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mexico Restaurant manager Martin Mora cooks swordfish on the grill for one of his specialties, Acapulco Pescado.
» 1247 North School St., Kalihi
» Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
The dish: Acapulco Pescado (Acapulco Fish) comes from a city famous for its seafood as well as for its high-diving displays.
Swordfish is charbroiled for about five minutes, then delicately seasoned with oregano, paprika, black pepper and salt.
It's served with a papaya and avocado salsa that includes tomatoes, salt and hot sauce. Pineapple slices, a tomato "rose" and a lime decorate the dish.
Mexican rice (white rice fried in soybean oil and chicken stock, then spiced with bell peppers, garlic and tomatoes) and fried corn tortilla chips accompany the meal.
"I don't think any other restaurant in town makes this dish," said manager and chef Martin Mora. "This is my own recipe, from what my mother taught me back in Mexico."
The restaurant: Mora grew up in Guadalajara, on Mexico's Pacific Coast.
"Since I was 4 or 5 years old, my mother and grandmother taught me how to cook beans and eggs, fresh tortillas - we cooked everything fresh every day," he explained.
"I also learned the most important thing for Mexican food is the spices - you don't use the same spices for fish that you would for chicken or for beef."
Mora immigrated to Los Angeles in 1990 to work for a Mexican restaurant; that chain had plans to open in Hawaii, so Mora moved with the company two years later.
His wife's cousin, Agustin, had been working for another Mexican restaurant on the Windward side and decided to open one of his own in 2004 - Mexico Lindo - and asked Martin to help.
It was so successful, they opened a second in Kalihi in 2006 - Mexico Restaurant, which Martin manages.
The Kailua resident and his wife, Esmeralda, have two children: Maritsa, 11 (who's learning to cook from her father), and Isaac, 5.
"It's a tough job," said Mora. "I work seven days a week, and get here at 7 a.m. every day. But I enjoy cooking for others and keeping the customers happy."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
La Familia Restaurant owner Jose Aguila plates a dish of birria, or goat stew, in the kitchen of his Waipahu eatery.
La Familia Restaurants
» 94-226 Leoku St., Waipahu
» Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays and Mondays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
The dish: Similar to the Filipino Kaldereta (probably due to Spanish influence in both countries), birria, or goat, is an earthy delicacy well worth the wait.
"I usually marinate the meat in vinegar overnight to take out the strong taste and smell," explained Jose Aguila, co-owner. "Then I cook it in the oven (the traditional method was in underground pits, like an imu) for four hours till it's tender. I've tried modern pressure cookers, but I found the meat gets too flaky."
The mildly spicy sauce (it can be modified to taste) includes oregano, garlic, tomatoes and chile paste. Refried beans, onion, cilantro and lemon are served on the side. Soft tortilla wraps and fried tortilla chips (the blue corn is yummy!) are complimentary.
"Birria is very popular on the weekends with native Mexicans here," Aguila said.
The restaurant: La Familia celebrates its 10th anniversary in July.
Daughters Ruby (a marketing major at Leeward Community College) and Jessica (who just graduated from Waipahu High School) and niece Samantha, 14, help out when school allows, along with two employees. Wife Blanca (from El Paso) also runs a Mexican lunch wagon of the same name at Wheeler Army Airfield.
Jose left home in Estipac, a small town in Jalisco state along Mexico's Pacific Coast, at age 17. He worked in the California fields (his grandmother lives there), and in construction along the West Coast, then met Blanca in Alaska. In 1995 they moved to Hawaii ("the weather is just like home").
"Blanca first wanted a lunch wagon, but then we saw this restaurant for sale," explained Jose. "My mom and my grandma and my wife's uncle, who's a chef, all came to help cook at the start."
The hard work seems to have paid off with many regular customers.
Jim and Lina Morris frequent the restaurant about three times a month. "I've been to Mexico," said Jim, a naval information officer, "and it compares well to the restaurants there. It's the best one we've found so far."
Friday, July 25, 2008
Captions for the two photos of Mexican dishes on this article were switched. The top photo, by FL Morris, should have been identified as Acapulco Pescado from Mexico Restaurant; the second photo, by Cindy Ellen Russell, was of “birria,” or goat stew, from La Familia Restaurant.