La Bamba forced to say adios


POSTED: Saturday, January 23, 2010

La Bamba Mexican Restaurant will serve its last meals at dinner service Wednesday after 22 years in business at 847 Kapahulu Ave.

It is another victim of the recession, as unemployment grew and budgets shrank, making dining out an option for far fewer Hawaii residents.

David Martinez brought his family to Hawaii from Mexico City and, in 1987, opened the restaurant.

The family-run restaurant is an all-hands-on-deck affair as he and wife Virginia do the cooking, daughter Dina is the server and son David Jr. washes dishes, though David Sr. laughed, as do many business owners, that he also clears tables, does dishes and “;everything”; else.

They also work six days a week, serving lunch and dinner. The family's only day off is Saturday.

Specialties and most popular dishes at the bring-your-own-bottle restaurant over the years have included La Bamba Chicken, egg roll-like butaquitos filled with cheese and beef, chicken or lamb, as well as carne asada and chili rellenos.

David Martinez would like to open in another location, but first the family will take some time off.

They have spent “;too much time working, no vacation, no nothing (because) we want to take care of our customers, so no vacation for 22 years,”; he said.

The customers over the years have included local and Hollywood celebrities.

“;Tia Carrere came in the '80s, when we opened,”; Dina recalled. The too-many-to-mention since then have included Govs. Lingle, Cayetano and Waihee, veteran politicians like Ann Kobayashi, former UH Warrior quarterback Colt Brennan and actor Jorge Garcia, who plays Hurley on “;Lost.”;

Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha “;is a regular,”; she said.

“;We just treat them like our family,”; and the noncelebrity local customers give the famous diners their space.

The year 2009 “;was a difficult one for restaurants as it was for all businesses, and particularly small businesses,”; said Gail Ann Chew, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association.

“;All of the things that impact business in general impacted restaurants, and it's a trickle-down thing. As you see people ... who are hard-working get laid off or downsized out of companies, we have fewer dollars to spend to eat out, and as a result it's going to impact some of our favorite places,”; she said. “;Unfortunately, we've seen that all through the year.”;

The National Restaurant Association forecasts slightly improved sales for 2010, according to a Dow Jones Newswires story.

It projects total industry sales of $580 billion for the year, up 2.5 percent from 2009 but essentially flat when adjusted for inflation.

Chew has been compiling her own data for projections and will participate in the national organization's webinar on Wednesday—as the Martinez family prepares to close the eatery that has fed, housed and clothed it for more than two decades.