Sometimes quantity compensates for quality. But when both size and taste expectations are surpassed, and you’re about to pass out from a food coma (and you’re only on the nachos), and the tequila shots you’ve downed have no effect on you, well, that’s when you know you’re in trouble. But look on the bright side: at least you’ll have lots of leftovers with which to relive your gastronomic epiphany.
Like many former California residents, Just Tacos Mexican Grill & Cantina owner Jesus Santoyo shared the typical gripe that there is no good Mexican food in Hawaii. But here’s where Santoyo went further than the whiny food snobs—for a master’s project at California State University at Long Beach, he traveled around Mexico gathering the best recipes for several Mexican dishes, including chicken mole. It was neither a quick nor an easy task, as Santoyo often worked for and alongside families to properly learn old recipes (convincing some to share old family recipes was near-impossible at times), as well as giving monetary compensation for each recipe. To prove the success of his culinary journey, Santoyo has opened Just Tacos Mexican Grill in downtown Honolulu and the newer Just Tacos Mexican Grill & Cantina in Mililani Town Center. Business has been so good that he plans to open a third location this year.
While the entrance to the Town Center looks like any suburban mall—turquoise roofing, chain stores and all—a short walk to the back and to the right reveals a restaurant with earthy, stony décor, high ceilings, cool fans and an ambience that whisks you away from the strip mall world.
First, with the tequila. Just Tacos is one of a few places on Oahu that has a decent tequila selection. There are hundreds of tequila varieties that go beyond the typical offerings of various versions of José Cuervo and Patron. Yes, those married to the Cuervo can still get it for only $3 a shot, but those with more refined or experimental tastes and bigger wallets can shoot or sip anything from Cazadores Añejo ($7) to a limited-edition Tequila Casino Azul to a rare $5,000-per-shot tequila. With a menu page each of blanco, resposado, añejo and especial tequilas, Just Tacos’ dizzying array of the agave liquor makes one yearn to be a tequilier (one term for a tequila sommelier), or at least embarrassed that one has probably only tried a handful before. And for those not ready for the straight stuff, there is also a decent selection of margaritas and bottled beers.
Before ordering, a glance at a neighboring table revealed a square platter about two feet by two feet that harbored a mountain of guacamole, nachos, flautas, fried calamari, spicy jumbo shrimp and a quesadilla. Sure that this freak-of-nature, Chuy’s Special Papi Platter, was not representative of what was to come, a table of eight started off the night with three nacho platters–carnitas, steak and chicken. What arrived were approximately six inch-high and 18-inch-wide mountains of homemade tortilla chips smothered in cheese, meat, sour cream, salsa and guacamole. Despite our knowledge that finishing the platters would be the demise of the night, the thin, fresh crispness of each chip—only improved by substantial chunks of topping—made the eating experience too tempting to stop. One knew by this point that the entree sizes were going to be truly absurd. The additional sides of fresh tableside guacamole consisted of a plain avocado paste next to chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and a special mix of herbs and spices. One was probably supposed to mix the two piles together. But with a table full of gringos, who was to know? Hence, the avocado alone was rather bland.
After we failed to demolish the nachos, the hot platters came out. Scrambling to make space among margarita pitchers and baskets of chips and salsa (yes, in addition to the nachos), orders of one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the Molcajete ($18.99), arrived in stately cast iron bowls. Even amid the trio of tantalizing meat and seafood—huge, succulent prawns, juicy steak and flavorful chicken grilled to perfection—the selection of melted Mexican cheeses on top of which the meat rested was good enough on its own to have some at the table kicking themselves for not ordering that entree. “Molcajete. That’s my favorite dish!” owner Santoyo exclaimed as he came by to check on our table. “That’s how I keep my figure,” he joked, placing his hands sassily on his hips.
Tearing eyes and forks away from the Molcajete, others could then focus on the mole and taco plates. The large portion of mole—shredded chicken in what is commonly called a chocolate sauce—easily took up half the plate. The rather typical refried beans and Mexican rice paled in comparison with the rich-tasting sauce—a blend of sweet and savory with touches of cumin, cinnamon and chili spice seeped into the moist chicken. The corn tortillas ordered with the mole, however, brought the platter together. While American palettes tend to favor flour tortillas over corn, perhaps due to a drier nature that lower-quality corn tortillas can have, Just Tacos’ 200-year-old recipe yielded some of the best corn tortillas many at the table had tasted. Flavorful but not overly salty, the steamy, fresh tortillas were great enough to eat unadulterated by anything else.
Not only does Santoyo’s “grandmother grande’s” recipe make the corn tortillas special, but the tortilla machine in the corner of the restaurant also helps, yielding up to 900 fresh tortillas per hour. The machine is supervised by a person who then grills the tortillas once they’ve been pressed and cooked. In addition, the corn used for the tortillas, like many of the ingredients used at Just Tacos, is imported from Mexico. On this night, the tortilla griller also appeared to be the restaurant’s sound technician, grilling to his right and adjusting sound to his left.
A double layer of tortillas was used for each taco, of course piled high with all the proper fixings. In addition to the standard meat fare at most Mexican restaurants, Just Tacos also offers conchita pibil (shredded pork marinated in citrus juice) and birria (shredded beef marinated for hours in a house sauce). And while the food menu isn’t as extensive as the tequila menu, additional standout offerings include ceviche and queso fundido (broiled cheese with corn tortillas).
If you really want to make a night of your trip to Just Tacos, Saturdays see the restaurant turn into a salsa club. Because this particular night was part of the Cinco de Mayo weekend block party at Mililani Town Center, an especially energetic nature was in the air. Shaking hips were not confined to the restaurant, but also moving in the town center gazebo and just about everywhere else, with giant versions of the restaurants classic margaritas held by many dancers.
Fresh, authentic ingredients simmered, roasted and grilled with love by expert hands make those homesick for Mexican food (and those ready to think outside of Taco Bell) come together in a jovial environment, sure to be experienced again and again.