The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Savoring simplicity

A search for good Mexican fare
proves that basic can be best

I wish I had a great new Mexican restaurant to offer up for Cinco de Mayo, but I had to pass on the newly open Mexico Lindo in Kailua, where the chile verde was more gray than green.

Ditto El Pallenque in Wahiawa, where flavors of mole and pork verde are vibrant and spicy enough to burn a hole in your tongue. But alas, any good is undone by some salt fiend in the kitchen. It's as if someone spilled a whole carton of Morton's into every pot -- holy moley -- rendering dishes inedible.

After those two disappointing experiences, food fatigue set in. The tummy can take only so much punishment before the over-protective brain says no more.

At any rate, the brain said simpler is better, and nothing is simpler than tacos. Next time you head to Palama Market near Daiei Kaheka, look across the street for La Taqueria, which offers well-seasoned garlic pork, pork chile verde, pork chile Colorado and spicy beef tacos in sushi-like portions that allow you to double or triple up.

Also following the simplicity rule is Diego's Taco Shop -- well known in the Pearl City/Aiea area -- with a newly opened satellite branch in Moiliili, next to Old Stadium Park and close to UH students, a demographic most likely in need of cheap fuel.

Diego's Taco Shop manager Ivonne Manobanda holds up a Carne Asada plate, which features marinated beef cooked in various spices.

Diego's can seat about 16, but if you arrive about 7 p.m., it'll be strictly takeout. People tend to get hungry at the same time, or maybe we've just been conditioned over the millenia to forage as one last chance to snack before the sky turns black.

While there's an elegance to La Taqueria's offerings, dressed up in various spices and cilantro, Diego's menu is more basic. Carnitas ($2.95) is all about pork alone. Carne asada ($3.25) comprises marinated strips of beef, a little too leathery for my taste, but that never seems to bother restaurant neophytes. A fish taco ($3) seems to contain little more than the fishsticks of the sort served by Mrs. Paul to little kids.

The pork was the best, and many of the same ingredients can also be used to stuff a torta (sandwich, $4.75 to $5), tostada ($2.85 to $3) or more substantial burrito ($4.80 to $5.35). For something not yet co-opted by Taco Bell, try the machaca burrito ($5.15), a combination of corned beef sauteed with onions, tomatoes and egg. It may sound like breakfast, but it's good any time of day.

Forget about spicing it up with salsa. I asked for the hot version and got something so mild I just gulped it down like a shot.

If you're looking for another place to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, you can count on a party at Compadres Bar & Grill. One need only witness the long lines on Taco Tuesdays -- when $1 tacos are offered from 4 to 7 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. until closing -- to get an idea of the rush to expect on Cinco de Mayo Thursday.

The celebration actually begins today, when, just like every Sunday, kids 12 and younger get to eat free when their companion -- I hope that's a parent -- purchases an adult entree.

Then tomorrow, the theme is "Margarita Madness," with $10 pitchers; $2 individual margaritas; and $5 "Top Shelf" and "Back Bar" margaritas.

On Taco Tuesday, pair the main course with $2.50 margaritas and just for this week, $1 nachos.

On Thursday, look for chipotle beer dogs washed down with tequila shots. In the early evening, a mariachi band will entertain while you dine.

For more info, call 591-8307

Over at the Aloha Tower Marketplace, there'll be a free block party going on from 5 p.m. on the 5th, with salsa lessons in the atrium, and performance by Rolando Sanchez & Salsa Hawaii, and Mariachi del Pacifico. When it's time to fuel up, check out:

» Don Ho's Island Grill: Offering kalua pork quesadillas and pork chile verde specials, plus entertainment by Iolani from 5 to 8 p.m. and reggae super stars The Wailers from 10:30 p.m. You couldn't ask for a more intimate concert venue. Tickets are $20 presale and $25 at the door; for 21 and older. Call 528-0807.

» Gordon Biersch: Corona and Corona Light will be $3. Spicy beef tacos, bean burritos, and kalua pork quesadillas will be on special for $2 each. Then listen to Guy Cruz from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Inoa'Ole from 8:30 p.m. to midnight, and strolling mariachis throughout the night. Call 599-4877.

» Bikini Cantina: Also will feature Corona specials and Camarones Tequila Tostadas, butterflied black tiger shrimp marinated in agave tequila. Call 525-7288.

"Salsa After Dark" will combine Cinco de Mayo and Mother's Day with a party at Rumours Nightclub at the Ala Moana Hotel, from 5 p.m. Thursday, with salsa music and lessons continuing past midnight, a Mexican buffet and roses for moms while they last. Cover: $5. Call 955-4811 or 285-0072 for more information.

So as not to conflict, "La Zona Latina" will celebrate on the 6th, with Mexican foods available from Mercado de la Raza, and performances by Mariachi Pacifico, DJs, La Gitana and Mero Mero performing at Happening @ Panama Hatties, 99-016 Kamehameha Highway, in Aiea. Cover is $8; must be 18 and older. For more information, call 485-8226 or 285-0072.

Diego's Taco Shop, Moiliili

2239 S. King St. (next to Old Stadium Park) / 944-2942

Food Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Star Half-star

Ambience Star Star

Value Star Star Star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Fridays

Cost: Less than $10 per person

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

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to nkam@starbulletin.com

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