Some Like It Hot
Mexican food in Hawaii is notoriously hit-and-miss. We have our favorites: Serg’s in Manoa and Waimanalo, and Mexico in Kalihi (at least for the tequila selection), but anybody from the Southwest misses prodigality of Tex-Mex choices. That’s why, when I noticed that a taco joint, Surf N Turf Tacos, had recently taken over the old L&L location on Monsarrat Avenue, I was stoked! You see, the Diamond Head community could use a good taco shop on this side of town. I wanted–needed to check it out. But I wasn’t going to stop there. My discovery inspired me to compare the tacos of Surf N Turf with la cocina of an established favorite, El Burrito, to see how a new spot stacks up to the tried and true.
Surf N Turf Tacos
Good music, friendly servers and surf videos on a big screen above the register lend a hip atmosphere to Surf N Turf.
My partner and I went for breakfast. Pots of beans and rice bubbled on the stovetop. Photos of swells decorated the walls. This place resembles its name, that’s for sure. My partner ordered a steak and egg burrito ($8.95): Eggs, potatoes, beans, cheese and guacamole balanced nicely together without being too overpowered by seasoning. Oh, and the potatoes I nabbed from his plate melted in my mouth. My partner wanted to try all three hot salsas at the bar: a green tomatillo salsa, a housemade red (tangy, garlicky, slightly salty puree) and a creamy salsa to pair with fish. His dish wasn’t bland, he just likes salsa. I ordered two vegetarian breakfast tacos ($3.50 each), which were beautifully presented. The bell peppers were crispy, the eggs fluffy, guacamole creamy and tangy, the potatoes a crumbly perfection. The whole thing was topped with fresh pico de gallo (tomato salad).
We had just cleaned our plates when owner Andrew Robertson emerged from the kitchen, greeting us with a big smile and warm handshake. He recognized us from surfing in town and sat down to talk story. His friendliness was typical of the shop: The nice guy behind the counter complimented my partner’s order before preparing it.
Robertson is an Aussie surfer, a new face to Oahu. His business partner Robert Delucas is a Southern Californian who brought his passion for Mexican food into the kitchen, which opened last September.
I would have gotten one of the homemade chocolate chip cookies ($1.95) on our way out–but my stomach was totally happy with the tacos. The food was light but satisfying; a nice find in a usually hefty taco joint. Next time, I’ll also go for Kona Coffee or a tall glass of horchata–a classic Mexican almond and cinnamon rice drink. Oooh, or a frosty brew (but maybe not at breakfast). Surf N Turf is definitely one of my new favorites.
El Burrito, on the other hand, isn’t new–it’s a classic. Owner Yolanda Manrique was as charming as the atmosphere at her time-tested Mexican kitchen, smiling softly as she described her sentiments behind El Burrito and its 28-year long journey. “I’m here every day, all day, but it’s what I do,” she seemed to chant. “28 years, but it’s coming to its time, it’s almost time.” Her smile turned into a laugh and she and her granddaughter–one of the many family members who help Manrique run the place–joked about how they should close shop tomorrow.
It’s amusing that burrito is literally Spanish for “little donkey,” as burro means donkey, and the suffix -ito refers to its size. The etymology is highly disputed, but maybe it’s that burritos look like the little bags they carried. El Burrito is a quaint cocina tucked into a shopping plaza on Piikoi Street. Manrique is from Mexico City and the buzzing conversations from her family and employees were frequently in Spanish.
Eaters seemed to really know the place. Very few stopped by without issuing a cheerful greeting to the kitchen and staff.
I sipped on a refreshing house-made limeade ($2.00)–not too sweet or too sour. It was good, but it would’ve been better if mixed with a cold Corona.
I chose the veggie enchiladas ($10.25), a nice mix of hearty zucchini, celery, peas, carrots and potatoes, topped with sweet, dark mole. Cheese is on top and doesn’t weigh down the dish. Mole is a classic sauce, originally from Oaxaca, and often made chile and chocolate. El Burrito’s is rich, but not heavy. My partner ordered chicken tamales with rice and beans($11), extra hot. He discovered his tamales were moist, tender in texture and loved it covered in red sauce, saturated with cheese and fresh, sliced jalapeños. On the downside, El Burrito was out of my favorite: flan… Shucks! But I really couldn’t complain, being stuffed.
“Our food, it’s Americanized,” Manrique admitted, with a smile. “Almost everything is made here,” she added, before giving me a hug and pat on the back as any family member would. 30 minutes eating at El Burrito and I was already at home. Both of my newfound Mexican joints filled me up and set me out, ready to surf the next unstoppable wave! Andale!