El Mariachi's fare is worth celebrating


POSTED: Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Cinco de Mayo may have come and gone, but it's not as if it is the only occasion to enjoy cuisine from South of the Border.

Chances are, you probably wouldn't have been able to squeeze into Kaneohe's El Mariachi restaurant yesterday, anyway. With only 35 seats, patrons have come to expect a line, and the restaurant's response is to post a sign-up, wait-list sheet at the door so people can quickly decide whether to stay or try someplace else.




El Mariachi


        45-1151 Kamehameha Hwy (at Kahuhipa) » 234-5893

Food: ;*;*;*1/2


Service: ;*;*;*


Ambience: ;*;*1/2


Value: ;*;*;*1/2


Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily Cost: About $25 to $30 for two; BYOB


Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.


These days, with so many restaurants struggling to fill seats, it's unusual to see a neighborhood restaurant packed at noon. The fare is rather heavy for lunch time, and it's a stand-alone restaurant, so it's not like it has busy neighbors that help drive traffic. No, El Mariachi is the destination, the work of the Torres family with roots in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The menu isn't complicated, full of the requisite tacos, burritos and chimi- changas, but there are a handful of dishes that do set it apart from other restaurants, as well as great execution for those dishes that many deem to be the test of Mexican restaurants. For me, those would be the ceviche, chile relleno and moles, when they're available. There's no mole here, but the other two dishes passed muster.

I started my order with dos tacos filled with pork adobada ($10.95), marinated in vinegar, pepper and spices, and served complete with Spanish rice and refried beans, and an order of ono, or wahoo, ceviche ($10.95, or $12.95 with shrimp). At that, the server started to walk away.

“;Wait, I'm not finished,”; I protested.

After receiving the dish, I wasn't surprised she assumed that was quite enough food for two. The ceviche, cool and refreshing with the bright spark of lime, plus onions, tomatoes and cilantro, filled a platter, spread across two crisp tostada shells sitting on a bed of lettuce. It's a little more than an appetizer, and a perfect dish to consider for warm summer months ahead.

If the ceviche is a test for freshness, the chile relleno is a test of cooking skill on a Mexican standard. Usually, you'll find these stuffed with cheese ($7.95 for one; $9.95 for two), but El Mariachi offers a lot more savory choices, from carne asada ($9.95/$11.95) to lobster ($9.95/$13.95). In hindsight, I guess I should have tried the lobster, but at the moment I opted for the simpler shrimp, for the same price. This, too, was nice and fresh, with three of the little crustaceans stuffed into the roasted Anaheim chile, blanketed in fluffy egg batter and served in a mild tomato sauce topped with melted cheddar.

IT'S USUALLY a challenge to find lighter dishes at a Mexican restaurant, but a series of grilled fish dishes ($13.95) also fit the bill. On my visit, wahoo was the fresh catch. There's pescado Mazatlan served with a spicy Guajillo salsa, and pescado Vallarta, topped with garlic butter and mushrooms. I opted for pescado el Caribe, topped with a salsa comprising a generous large dice of fresh papaya and avocado. The fish itself was dry, but the salsa made up for lax timing. I understand they're very busy in the kitchen. The line of diners is almost non-stop, with shifts turning over every hour-and-a-half or so.

I prefer the fish to the grilled steak in the mariachi fajitas ($13.95 for one/$21.95 for two), which was rather tough.

One of the biggest surprises was a dish of Chuys' spicy shrimp ($11.95) that will be like a dream come true to anyone who measures food quality in Scoville units. Any fan of chili peppers must be accustomed to Hawaii hot, which is pretty tepid. I've given up on the belief that the food will actually be fiery, so I was really happy, even as I reached for the water glass and guacamole. Some dishes are spicy just for heat's sake, but this dish had both heat and the smoky flavor of chipotles with garlic. Outstanding. If you can take it. I didn't try the garlic shrimp ($13.95), but the butter-garlic sauce is an option for those afraid of peppers.

For dessert, there's a very firm flan ($4), but if you want to try something different, order La Banana de Goyo ($5). Imagine flavor of banana lumpia, enhanced and super-sized in a tortilla. This dessert combines bananas, cream cheese, strawberry jam and caramel, wrapped in a flour tortilla and deep fried, then finally topped with whipped cream, swirls of chocolate sauce and a cherry. That's a celebration in itself, available 365 days a year.