In the hospital immediately following his second daughter’s birth, Luis Silva was calling me, not to announce, "It’s a girl," but to gush about his other baby, Luibueno’s Mexican & Seafood Restaurant.
The most crucial measure of restaurant is a restaurateur’s dedication, so it was a good sign, maybe not so much for his wife Taryn Silva, but for fans of Mexican food. (Just kidding; Taryn’s an integral part of the restaurant, working behind the scenes and keeping the books.)
The restaurant fills the void left by last fall’s closing of Rosie’s Cantina in the Haleiwa Town Center, across from Kua ‘Aina, but Silva’s no stranger to North Shore foodies. In the 20 years he’s been in Hawaii, he’s worked at restaurants from Roy’s Ko Olina on the west side to such landmark restaurants as Jameson’s by the Sea and Chart House-Haleiwa, filling every position from dishwasher to cook.
Like everyone else, he’d heard about the dearth of good Mexican fare in Hawaii, but it struck him a little more personally because he grew up in San Diego, surfing Baja and crossing the border for the real deal. He started his own catering business in 2005 to provide south-of-the-border food for surf competitions and other North Shore events. He now brings some of the same surf and casual Baja vibe to Luibueno’s, to the point where the amiable, energetic restaurateur will sit down with customers to talk story.
The restaurant’s opening provides the perfect excuse for a summer day’s cruise to the North Shore, to be rewarded with thirst-quenching margaritas and comidas. You can also leave with fresh seafood he’ll be selling on the premises. Stay alert on the road, though. On an otherwise pleasant midday Saturday trek, my car was nearly sideswiped twice by lunatic drivers, whose numbers seem to increase daily.
LUIBUENO’S MEXICAN & SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Haleiwa Town Center, 66-165 Kamehameha Highway » 637-7717
Hours: Open daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., lite menu from 3 to 5 p.m., dinner from 5 to 9:30 p.m., and lite menu from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. Cost: About $30 to $40 for lunch or dinner for two without alcohol
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THE RESTAURANT is not built for people watchers. Tables are separated by partitions in sunny orange and yellow, giving diners a small measure of privacy. You can see those closest to you, but you can’t scan the room.
Of interest to grazers is a tapas menu filled with delicious offerings such as ceviche ($8) with the perfect blend of lime juice, tomatoes, onions and cilantro; and camarones a la plancha ($9.75), shrimp sauteed in butter, garlic and chile de arbol. There’s more of the butter and garlic than spice, but few would complain about that. If you do want more of a kick, tables come provisioned with Guacamaya hot sauce, a perfect match for seafood.
You have to be a seafood lover to enjoy the appetizer portion of the menu. There’s more shrimp and scallops served aguachile style ($10.75 each), chilled in a marinade of lime, chile, onions and cucumbers. Sashimi, crispy calamari ($8.50) and steamed clams ($14.95) also appear. The only meat that appears is chorizo; the Spanish sausage is a $2 add-on to queso fundido, a toasted baguette served with manchego and warm goat cheese ($11.50).
Fisherman’s catch (market) can be prepared three ways: "ajillo," pan-seared with butter, garlic and chile de arbol; breaded, fried and served with chipotle aioli; and Vera Cruz style, pan-seared and topped with spicy tomato sauce and olives. This being a fish market, you’ll also have your pick of fish, usually three different offerings daily. When I was there, the choices were monchong, ono and mahimahi.
I like scallops when they’re done well, but I generally steer clear of them when trying an unfamiliar restaurant because they too often come out flabby and flavorless. I was sold on the seared scallops ($21.95) here on the strength of our waiter’s recommendation and found them to be perfect, with a nice sear encasing the tender meat, and doused with a smooth tequila cream sauce. Like other entrees, it comes with your choice of flour or corn tortillas for constructing your own tacos or burritos if desired, and I love the accompaniment of a fresh grilled dice of zucchini, summer squash and red bell peppers.
And of course there are the Baja tacos, served on a flat tortilla. You can order them a la carte, at $4 (veggie) to $6.95 (Gobernador with melted jack, sauteed shrimp and Pico de Gallo), or two on a plate with beans and rice ($12 to $17.90). The Fisherman’s Catch ($6.25 a la carte) featured white fish piled with green and purple cabbage, cilantro, onions, cheese, roasted salsa and white sauce. It was a lot of food, but I would have preferred less, for clarity, rather than a jumble of flavors.
A Baja-style carne asada taco ($4.95) sounded simple enough – marinated steak topped with onions, cilantro, guacamole and salsa – but this time, the beef didn’t have enough flavor.
To his credit, Silva creates his dishes from scratch, down to the housemade chocolate that coats a dessert of deep-fried ice cream. And his work ethic has caught on since his sous chef took it upon himself to make ketchup from scratch.
My search for killer tacos continues, but they could still be on this menu. I didn’t try the grilled and blacked ahi yet, or the pollo asada. Crossing my fingers.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.