Authentic Mexican In Mililani

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 30, 2008
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Jesus Santoyo of Just Tacos: family recipes and 150 tequilas
Jesus Santoyo of Just Tacos: family recipes and 150 tequilas

Here’s the kind of food story I love. When Jesus Santoyo decided to open a restaurant in Honolulu, he wanted to use recipes from different regions of Mexico, and set off on a backpacking trek around his home-land to find the best dishes.

“When I got to Pueblo, I asked about the best mole and was told it was made by a family who sold it out of their home,” says Jesus. After meeting the family’s grandmother and explaining he would like to learn her recipe, he was met with a firm no. But persistence paid off, and when he offered his labor in the kitchen in exchange for the treasured mole recipe, he soon was invited to live as part of the family.

“I learned a recipe that has been around for hundreds of years,” he says, “and I made some good friends.”

Three years and almost three restaurants later (there’s a Just Tacos scheduled to open in Pearlridge in May), Jesus returned last month to visit his friends and share a little of his blossoming financial success. “They’re able to put a new roof on their house,” he says, “and they’re happy that their recipe is being enjoyed in Hawaii.”

The rest of the recipes have a story, too. Probably the best time to hear them is over a drink at the impressive bar that’s home to almost 150 tequilas, including the extremely rare 1800, of which there are only 18 bottles produced each year.

The restaurant has an earthy, muted décor, a warm ambience and a shiny tortilla maker in the corner capable of producing up to 900 warm tortillas an hour. “We call it our time machine,” Jesus says. “People come in and then watch their tortillas being made.”

I had the ceviche when I went last week, and I could hardly put it down. The lime marinated white fish has just the right texture and a wonderfully light, citrus flavor, complemented by cilantro, tomato and onion. Homemade tortilla chips, salsa and made-to-order guacamole are the real deal, too, and there’s no fajitas in town that come any fresher.

Just Tacos started three years ago when Jesus and his wife, Meagan, opened their downtown store, serving just tacos. The Mililani store came next.

“I wanted to add a little more to the menu,” says Jesus, “and it’s going better than we ever anticipated.”

The young man who first put his business plan down on paper as a thesis in college has realized that what people want from a restaurant is not fancy surroundings and fawning service, but very good food.

“I modeled my stores on the In and Out Burger concept,” he says, “and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it could be done with good Mexican food.”

I loved the food. I’ve had Molcajete many times in Mexican restaurants and this is the best of any I’ve tried, with tender slices of chicken, steak and plump, juicy shrimp buried beneath a blanket of thick melted cheese. The Mole Plate ($12.99) is a must-try, and the chips and salsa (you get an unlimited amount for $3.99) are addictive.

“You have to use authentic ingredients to make these recipes,” says Jesus, who imports dry ingredients by container load from Los Angeles several times a year. “It’s expensive to make everything from scratch, but we think that it’s worth it.”

Check out Just Tacos this weekend as they celebrate the inaugural block party outside their charming restaurant. You’ll find them right between Longs and Star Market - just listen for the Mariachi band and salsa music.

“We’re having our Cinco de Dos party on Friday, May 2,” says Jesus, “and we hope a lot of people take the opportunity to come and see what we’re doing.”

If you’re one of the thousands of people roaming the Island in search of a true taste of Mexico, head to Mililani. You’re in for a treat.

Happy eating!


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