The Weekly Eater

By Nadine Kam

Thursday, October 21, 1999

Mexican food
with a family flair

PEOPLE who ask about Mexican food in Hawaii do so with resounding resignation, as if hoping to find out something new when they already know what names they're going to hear. For about as long as I've been writing about restaurants, my stock recommendations have been Quintero's and Azteca, and until it splintered into two restaurants with different names, El Charro Avitia for those in Windward Oahu. Well, now add one more name to the list.

La Familia Restaurante recently opened in a one-story building on Leoku Street that is becoming Waipahu's mecca for roots cooking. Already available are soul food from Mom's Kitchen and local grinds served by Highway Inn.

La Familia Restaurante

Ambience STARSTARHalf-star

Bullet Address: 94-226 Leoku St.
Bullet Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays
Bullet Prices: About $12 to $20 for two
Bullet Call: 671-8776

As the name implies, La Familia serves up family-style meals as cooked up by Blanca Aguila with the help of her clan. These dishes take time to prepare, so come intending to relax and sit a while.

I would have been happy with the salsa alone, the best I've had in Hawaii with its puree of grilled tomatoes, chopped onions and cilantro and serrano peppers. It was hot stuff but so good salsa lovers will likely soak it in to the point of numbness. I even asked to take some home. I have never asked for salsa to go.

Of course, after sampling the salsa, I was frightened by the idea of chasing it with camarones (shrimp) a la diabla ($8.99). How searing would this devilish hot sauce turn out to be? It turned out to be a sweet, garlicky tomato sauce suited to those who like sweet-sour foods.

I might have liked the camarones al mojo de ajo ($8.99) better, but I couldn't see visiting a Mexican restaurant for what is, essentially, shrimp scampi.

The hot sauces on the table, Choluta and Tapatio, brought out the tart notes of Carne Adovada ($8.99 plate with rice, salad and refried beans/$2 in a taco), pork marinated in vinegar and a wonderful mixture of spices before hitting the grill. As if this isn't enough, it's topped with a green sauce of cilantro, tomatillos and peppers that gives depth to the myriad flavors.

It's a typical dish from Southern Mexico where Blanca's husband hails from. She grew up in Ciudad Juarez in Northern Mexico where food is more fiery. La Familia combines the best of both worlds.

If you're in search of something different, there's Birria ($8.99), goat marinated and seasoned so it loses its gaminess, and cooked for five hours until it melts from the bone. And the restaurant's Mole Poblana ($8.99 plate/$3.99 in a burrito), a chile sauce made with Mexican chocolate, adds rich flavor and texture to boiled chicken.

Of all the superb recipes, Blanca's favorite -- and one I haven't tried yet -- is Carnitas ($8.99 plate/$4.95 burrito/$2 taco), pork browned in an oven more than four hours until, she said, "it's almost like kalua pig."

I only wish Blanca and La Familia had settled in Kailua, where I live.

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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

-- excellent;
-- very good, exceeds expectations;
-- average;
-- below average.

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