672 Kilani Ave., Wahiawa; 622-3003. Breakfast, lunch (closed Sundays), Taco Friday nights. $$
Barrio Cafe is the antidote to all those calm, sophisticated, brick-walled restaurants so easy to find around town. Barrio is bright, colorful, loaded with spirit — you can tell as soon as you walk in the door. Chef/owner Miriam Olivas has filled the space with paintings of Mexican cultural heroes, wrestling masks and other trappings of good cheer.
Her menu is equally lively, loaded with the foods of the barrios, or neighborhoods, of her life — parts of Mexico, Texas and California, and her home of Wahiawa. This year she visited Oaxaca, Mexico, on a busman’s holiday, learning the local cuisine. When she got back she threw a dinner party, showcasing the moles and other dishes she’d mastered.
If you’re here for breakfast you’ll want to try the machaca (beef, tomato and jalapeno scramble), chilaquiles (eggs over lightly fried tortillas) and the spectacular churro French toast. For lunch, try a ceviche — if you can’t pick one, get a sampler served in avocado halves. Put together your own platter of tacos — pork, beef, chicken, fish, or maybe you’ll get lucky and Olivas will have lengua (beef tongue) on special.
Flavors are vibrant and true; plates of tostadas, enchiladas and salads all stylishly presented (not the typical mess ‘o beans and rice).
To really see how Barrio fits into the neighborhood, join the crowd on a Friday night for tacos. BYOB, grab a table, order your tacos for a couple bucks apiece and enjoy.
Beet Box Cafe
66-437 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa (next to the post office); 637-3000. Breakfast, lunch. $
OK, be honest. How much do you really like arugula? Do you ever not wince at the intense spice and bitterness? Though we might enjoy a good arugula experience now and then, we know what’s coming, and brace ourselves.
Or so we thought, until visiting Beet Box Cafe. There, the kitchen has a sophisticated command of flavor and texture, and it has tamed arugula to be in perfect harmony with its plate mates.
The cozy vegetarian restaurant achieved this artistry in its popular Hello Burger, a vegetarian patty fried into deliciousness, then dressed with garlic aioli, Dijon mustard, feta, pickled onions and arugula. The rich combo of the fried burger, cheese and creamy aioli benefits greatly from the acid of the pickles and the bright, peppery, bitter arugula, which seamlessly complements the assemblage rather than bullies the taste buds. Yum.
The cafe’s Healthy Plate of Food is another case in point. The menu describes this seemingly unassuming dish as “a hearty saute” of various vegetables “with a splash of tamari,” served with walnuts, brown rice, black beans, avocado and sunflower sprouts. But that explanation is almost a disservice. When combined, the umami-rich cooked veggies, rich nuts, creamy avocado, chewy rice, hearty beans and crisp, fresh sprouts provide a mouthful that transcends mere tastiness. This dish is about layers — of texture, temperature and flavor — something you’d never expect from a humble hippie cafe.
Look for more magic in extensive breakfast and lunch menus, acai and other fruit bowls, and a long list of smoothies. Items with bread, cheese and eggs have gluten-free and vegan options.
The Kahala Hotel & Resort; 739-8760. Dinner, Sunday brunch. $$$$
Tucked into the quiet neighborhood of Kahala, Hoku’s at the Kahala Resort is a beachside gem that offers respite from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki. With sweeping views of the ocean, the upscale restaurant is popular among locals for its expansive Sunday brunch offerings from poke and sushi to chilled lobster and carving stations. But you would be remiss if you didn’t try the impressive dinnertime fare.
The highlights include chef de cuisine Eric Oto’s artfully crafted tasting menus that allow diners to sample the breadth of the kitchen’s talents. The five-course Global Cuisine menu is beautifully plated with complex flavor profiles, from the earthy nori-mushroom crusted scallop to a rich pan-seared duck breast with prune mui chutney and whiskey-carrot puree. It ends on a sweet parting note with the chocolate and chai tea cremeux; the caramel popcorn is a playful addition to the dish.
If you opt for the a la carte menu the land and sea choices are plentiful. Whole crispy moi with long bean and Hamakua alii mushrooms is an eye-catching standout from “The Fisherman” menu, a nod to the chef’s experience as a waterman.
A word to the wise: If you’re looking for a calm dining room, opt for a later reservation when vacationing families have taken boisterous little ones off to bed.
Coquito’s Latin Cuisine
85-773 Farrington Highway, Waianae; 888-4082. $$
This delightful Latin American restaurant in Waianae, nestled along Farrington Highway in a cozy repurposed house, specializes in dishes you might get in Puerto Rico, along with a smattering of Caribbean and South American specialties. The atmosphere is welcoming, and there’s parking out front. On a tradewind day, there’s the option to sit on the lanai; inside, it’s air-conditioned and cheery, with walls painted shades of turquoise and ochre. The family’s parrot holds court just inside the door.
A stand-out offering is the Camarones al Ajillo, an appetizer of plump shrimp served on crisped, twice-fried plantains and drizzled with sweet balsamic vinegar. We tried this dish as a special with guacamole, and it was easily a complete, pleasing meal.
Carb-lover? You’ve got to try the mofongo, a staple Puerto Rican dish: This garlicky starch is made from mashed green plantain, flavored with bacon and topped with chicken, steak or shrimp.
We heard that diners with Caribbean roots will drive across the island for a taste of Coquito’s Pasteles Boricuas, the Puerto Rican version of tamales, and the gandules rice (rice with pigeon peas).
Caribbean jerk wings, a Cuban sandwich and Colombian empanadas are also routinely offered. Save room for flan and the sweet, textured Tres Leches Cake, on display at the counter.
Maui Brewing Co.
Lau Hala Shops, 537 Kailua Road; 518-2739. Lunch, dinner. $$
With room for 240 and the slick vibe of a multinational chain, this Kailua location can make people forget that Maui Brewing had humble roots as a local brewpub. Now one of the largest craft beer producers in Hawaii, Maui Brewing was started by Garrett Marrero and his wife, Melanie Oxley, in Kahana, Maui, in 2005.
In all this time, the company hasn’t forgotten its roots in craft brews and artisan food to match. Yes, at first glance, the casual diner will just see the standard nachos, burgers and chicken wings. But taste, and you will find nachos layered with salsas chefs learned to make in Oaxaca. Food is made to be enjoyed by friends in portions to feed many mouths, such as a 15-piece order of chicken wings where most restaurants of this type might offer six, or a mountainous heap of nachos.
With pupu like this, who needs entrees? But to explore further, there is a juicy jalapeno bacon burger with fried avocado, jack cheese and cilantro mayo. Or try the fried chicken katsu sandwich with the wow factor of a lemon-curry crunchy slaw, Sriracha mayo and tonkatsu sauce. Loco Moco for Days features a bison burger over cilantro-flecked “Aloha Rice” with a side of charred kale and Hamakua mushrooms.
If you have room for dessert, try the skillet-size chocolate chip cookie drizzled with MBC Coconut Porter chocolate sauce, with vanilla bean ice cream.
PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARDS IN THIS CATEGORY
Central Oahu: Taqueria El Ranchero
North Shore: Uncle Bo’s
East Honolulu: The Surfing Pig
West Oahu: Tanioka’s Seafoods & Catering
Windward Oahu: Ono Steaks & Shrimp Shack