I don’t know about you, but my Christmas bills have already come due, and all the euphoria of the shopping season has dissipated. All that’s left is the question, “What have I done?”
The pain of bill paying merged with my meandering thoughts about affordable food and the growing presence of Mexican eateries in the Chinatown vicinity. I count eight.
Mexican food is one of the last bastions of affordable cuisines around and can offer some relief to diners just after Christmas and tax time, which coincidentally falls just before we celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
The newest of the downtown bunch is La Comida, the brick-and-mortar site for a chef who earned the nickname Troubles after a girl called him that at McKinley High School. The nickname stuck to the point that during his graduation, the principal called him up to the stage as Troubles, and he’s gone by the moniker ever since.
After graduating, he left for Las Vegas for more opportunities and lived there for 20 years before returning home in 2006.
It was in Vegas that he found his way into the kitchen, starting as a pastry chef at Sizzler, making breads, cinnamon rolls and desserts, before switching to cooking because it was hard to deal with the early morning hours involved with baking.
Along the way, Troubles also worked at the California Hotel and Main Street Station, popular sites for Hawaii travelers, so he never lost sight of what locals like to eat — “prime rib, steak and lobster,” he said.
Back at home, he started working at a bar when the owner of Torito’s approached him to come and work days. Troubles said he enjoyed a lot of great Mexican food while in Vegas but had never cooked it. He learned on the job as a line cook and spent the next decade at Torito’s until the restaurant closed four years ago.
He bought up all the restaurant’s equipment, pots and pans and set up shop within Hush Bar & Grill before starting a food-truck operation, making the rounds of Kakaako, Makaloa Street and the Hawaiian Electric building, before opening his restaurant a few months ago..
Along the way he experimented with recipes. “I didn’t want to do the same thing as Torito’s, and I came up with this menu,” he said, referring to the human-size blackboard at the entrance to the restaurant.
Although the starting point is Mexican cuisine, Troubles, who is of Filipino ancestry, offers a mix of Pinoy and Western-style meaty breakfast items. These include a choice of longanisa and tocino in addition to the usual Portuguese sausage and Spam, and a short roster of “Troubles Favorites,” meaty entrees to appeal to those who aren’t in the mood for Mexican.
“Not everybody can eat Mexican every day, and not everybody likes Mexican food, which is hard when people want to bring friends who want to eat something else,” he said.
It was pretty much love at first bite when I tasted his fresh salsa, a blend of tomatoes (he prefers those not fully ripened), cilantro, salt and jalapenos, by far one of the best on the island.
You can go the nachos route ($9), or for those who don’t like it when chips get soggy, try the nine-layer dip ($9). Both come with Spanish rice, beans, choice of meat, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, olives, tomatoes and chives. Or for a break from tortilla chips, go for the carne asada fries ($9) one of his top three best-selling items. The fries are layered with a generous amount of the diced steak, plus cheese, a spicy or mild house sauce, green onions and black olives.
French fries are also rolled into the top-selling, jumbo Troubles burrito ($10/$12), filled with your choice of meat, pico de Gallo, sour cream, guacamole, jalapeno salsa and the house spicy sauce. For traditionalists, there’s also the standard rice version, the Comida burrito ($10/$12).
About that spicy sauce, diners always have the option of ordering Troubles’ diablo hot sauce, a $2 charge that comes with a “no refunds” warning. It’s made with a blend of ghost peppers or Carolina reapers, plus habaneros. If he can’t find the habaneros, he may substitute milder jalapenos, but often, a small dot is all you need to confirm whether you can handle it or not. I like spicy, but for this one, I was glad I had some mashed potatoes and guacamole on hand to tame the burn.
The mashed potatoes with brown gravy came from a plate of 9- or 10-ounce piece of prime rib ($11, $12 for 11-12 ounces, $13 for 13-14 ounces), nicely cut into strips so you can just dive in with no fuss. It’s obviously the work of a dad (Troubles has five kids, and you’ll sometimes find one or three of them at work taking and ringing up orders, pouring water and running plates from the kitchen to the no-frills dining room).
As far as the meat dishes go, I preferred the sizzling rib-eye ($11) topped with buttery sauteed mushrooms and onions.
The third top seller is a Mexican pizza built over a crisp, deep-fried tortilla crust that has a fine brittleness at the edges and a softer center. It’s easier to eat with a fork rather than pick it up and risk spilling all its contents, a combination of beans, cheese, olives, tomatoes, green onions and your choice of meat.
My favorite dish is another original, buracho chicken ($11), a quarter chicken brined in beer, Clamato and spices, then slow-cooked in duck fat. It’s delicately crisp on the exterior, juicy and flavorful on the interior — everything you want in a chicken dish.
Given the large scale of his blackboard menu, after several repeat visits, I realized I missed the comparably tiny sheets of paper listing his daily specials. So I’ve missed out on such crowd pleasers as meatloaf with mashed potatoes ($10), a bacon burger dog with fries ($10) and Mexican burger with chile relleno and fries ($12).
That just means I’ll have to go back. No problemo since the price is right.
Union Plaza, 1136 Union Mall (between Bishop and Fort streets, across from Tsukenjo)
>> Call: 304-7758
>> Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays
>> Cost: About $25 for two (cash only)
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent
*** – very good
** – average
* – below average
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.