Up here in pre-planned, suburban Central Oahu, where the sky seems closer to the ground and the weather is a few degrees cooler, we do our fine dining at strip malls and chain restaurants. I should explain that it’s tough out here for foodies, so I was disbelieving when my father claimed he’d found an authentic Mexican restaurant in Waipio Shopping Center, home of the likes of Outback Steakhouse and Big City Diner. I went with him to check it out because I still believe in simple, quality dining in the suburbs–and because the man’s eyes were twinkling–he’d already packed his big blue cooler with BYOB Corona.
For most of my life, my father would reminisce about the really good Mexican food he ate in Salinas, California, back when he was young and single and had never heard of poke or saimin. No Mexican restaurant on the island has been able to meet his Californian expectations–that is, until he found Acapulco.
Throughout the last few weeks, I made several attempts to dine at Acapulco, and along the way I discovered a few neighborhood gems.
Attempt 1: Thai Village
Arriving the day after Christmas, we found a hand-written sign that left confusing instructions about Acapulco’s holiday hours. According to the note, they should have been open, but the dark windows and stacked chairs said resolutely that they weren’t. We were hungry, so we went two suites down to Thai Village.
In many ways, Thai Village is a typical Thai restaurant, but I liked its unassuming vibe. The intimate space is fittingly tropical and woody with an oriental flair. We started with the papaya salad ($7.50), a gentler, more sweet than citrus incarnation than I’ve had at other places, with a satisfying crunch and perky Manoa lettuce on the side.
Next, we tried the garlic curry ($11.95), which we ordered with sticky rice ($2). I could write an ode to Thai sticky rice. At Thai Village it comes in little plastic bags inside woven baskets. The rice plops out in one steaming, cylindrical hunk and makes the perfect compliment to the comforting coconut and garlic of the white curry. Best of all: delicate, flat mushrooms, drenched and floating in the curry.
Our final two courses were basil and beef ($9.95) and pad thai ($9.95). With these two dishes, we caught a hint of the heat that Thai Village is capable of, and the vibrancy of its saucier entrees. In the basil and beef, I happily recognized constituent flavor waves of bamboo, red and green pepper, carrots and basil. In the pad thai, there were crunchy bean sprouts, rich eggs, peanuts and invigorating green onions.
Attempt 2: Jade Garden
A week later, Acapulco was open again, so we made plans for dinner. Wary from being burned before, I drove by the restaurant around lunchtime just to make sure. Closed! A sign said something about doing work on the kitchen. Disheartened, I decided to get Chinese food at Jade Garden.
Taking advantage of the lunch special, I ordered a giant three-choice plate (~$9) to-go. I sat on a bench outside and drowned my sorrows in black bean sauce and spare ribs. I hunkered down into my despair, which tasted like tender choi sum, supposedly in shrimp sauce. My world became a piece of cold ginger chicken, where, beneath the layer of ginger, garlic and chives, I found stark, naked skin and congealed juices, which I loved, and then hated, and then loved again.
Attempt 3: Nancy’s Kitchen
Assured that the restaurant would reopen the next day, I fasted so as to achieve the optimum Acapulco experience. When we got there, the specials sign hadn’t been put out, but the doors were locked shut.
I was starving, so we went next door to Nancy’s Kitchen. Nancy’s is dark, heavily air conditioned and has the look and feel of a local sports bar. For lunch and dinner Nancy’s serves plate-lunch food along with burgers and sandwiches, but the really good stuff is the Hawaiian and Filipino food.
Although it is neither Hawaiian nor Filipino, it’s worth mentioning the oxtail soup ($12.50), with its huge, meaty and gelatinous oxtails floating in a broth so light and vegetable-infused that it almost reminds me of pho. Dip the tender oxtail meat in shoyu and ginger, and eat it with rice. Slurp the broth loudly.
But what Nancy’s is known for is its Hawaiian plate ($12.95). Though I’ve had better lau lau, the perfectly browned and seasoned kalua pork with a cup of slightly sour poi more than makes up for it. The freshness of the lomi salmon counterbalances the heaviness of the pork and poi, and there was a wedge of fragrant sweet onion to dip into a red Hawaiian salt mixture. Last was a creamy, light square of haupia–perfection. It wasn’t the food of Californian dreams–save that for another day, because yes, even with the run-around, I’ll still be back–but eating poi and kalua pork, it felt good to be home.
Finally…it was open.
Acapulco is a humble little restaurant, tucked into a corner of a long row of shops. The large tables and spacious chairs spill out into the walkway awkwardly, allowing for outdoor dining but making you feel somewhat lonely, like you’re the distant cousin at a family wedding, relegated to the edges of the party.
Eating at Acapulco consists largely of watching as a lone waitress teeters on the edge of control over the busy dining service. But despite the slowness, awkwardness and mistakes, what I remember most is that the customers didn’t complain, and now, I understand why. Acapulco’s food is fresh and tastes homemade. The tortillas were fluffy, the silky refried beans and Spanish rice were extravagantly tasty, and the meats were tender, moist and seasoned expertly. I devoured my carne asada tacos in four heaping, frantic bites ($11.90). I have a vivid recollection of the nachos ($11.95), which were the perfect combination of a corny, unadulterated crunch with real melted cheese and a satisfying meatiness, and zesty tomato juices seeped through each bite. These are the Acapulco moments I hope to experience again.