As Good As Mexican Food Gets

Jo McGarry
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Friday - February 10, 2006
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Chef Juan Madrigal of El Charro
Chef Juan Madrigal of El Charro

Good Mexican food has never been one of the highlights of Honolulu dining. There are, of course, several restaurants that serve fine enough Mexican food - but the overuse of the word “authentic” in their descriptions always leaves me cold.

Anyone who is searching for first-rate Mexican food here is usually a little disappointed.

Juan Madrigal, owner of the tiny El Charro at 111 Sand Island Road, doesn’t use the word authentic in any of his promotional material, but he does seem to have a talent for creating great food that is really tasty and able to satisfy any spice craving.

He recently opened a second restaurant, El Charro II at Pearl Ridge.

“We moved about five months ago,” he says of the new location (underneath Buffet 100), “and people really seem to like the new place.”

Juan explains why he thinks his food is a little different from most in Honolulu.

“I use more spices and concentrate on cumin, garlic and cayenne pepper,” he says, “and the result is food that is not too spicy, but very tasteful to the palate.”

El Charro II specializes in seafood - great news for anyone who loves the light taste of a great fish taco or some spicy shrimp. They do a wonderful Mexican ceviche - shrimp marinated in lime juice - and a fabulous Mexican shrimp cocktail that is really a bit like a highly flavored gazpacho, served in a huge glass bowl. Tender shrimp sit in a cold tomato base flavored with cumin, lime juice and bitesized chunks of fresh avocado. The dish has lots of eye appeal, and the serving is more than enough to share.

If you like ceviche, then you’ll love the Tostadas De Ceviche ($8.95). There’s a really nice crisp, clean taste to this dish, and the texture combination of crispy corn tostadas piled with sweet and spicy tender shrimp really works well.

The restaurant offers a complementary serving of Salsa Fresca with Chips when you’re first seated and additional orders are $6.95. I love the salsa. It’s heavily seasoned with jalapenos, cilantro, tomatoes and onions, and has just enough bite to keep you dipping all through dinner.

Specials at the new location include Enchiladas filled with shrimp ($12.95), crab ($13.95) or a seafood medley ($13.95), and all plates come with refried beans or Borracho beans (spicy baked beans with meat).

A few favorites from the original El Charro have made it to the menu, including the famous No. 7, a chicken dish with poblano peppers and a rich cream sauce.

“That is our most popular dish of all,” says Juan of the Pollo A La Parilla Con Rajas ($12.95), ” People know it so well now that they just refer to it by the number.”

Newer dishes at El Charro II include Mole Poblano (tender chicken breast pieces topped with a classic Mole sauce - dried chiles, garlic and chocolate - and served with rice, beans and warm tortillas) for $12.95, and Lomo Husteco, a dish of pork loin served with cactus leaves. The cactus leaves are marinated in vinegar, oil and jalapeno peppers, and bring a refreshing bite to the dish. “The dish is not too spicy, but it has a lot of flavor,” says Juan.

There’s none of that stodgy rice-in-a-burrito stuff on the menu, and I find most of the dishes really excellent. At El Charro II you may pay a little more for some dishes, but remember that seafood is the focus, and fresh fish specials are available daily.

“These are recipes that I grew up with,” says Juan. “They’re simple, tasty and filling.”

El Charro II is a great place to take your family. It’s spacious, encourages family dining, and children are very welcome.

845 9637 Sand Island Rd. 487 6100 Pearl Ridge

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