By Katlin Cilliers | Staff Writer
Home to an influx of different cuisines, Oʻahu lives up to the reputation of being a melting pot. From Vietnamese to Ethiopian food, there’s something to please everyone’s taste buds. To those wanting to experiment with a bit of Latin cuisine and explore South and Central American dishes, I have listed some of my favorite restaurants around Oʻahu that replicate the flavors found north and south of the Equator.
Puerto Rican: Coquitos (Waiʻanae)
This is by far my favorite Latin restaurant on the island. Located in Waiʻanae, the place is run by Stevina Kiyabu, who is a Puerto Rican of mixed descent. It relies on both a local and tourist clientele, while surrounded – nearly squeezed – by large chains such as McDonald’s and KFC.
With indoor and outdoor seating, Coquitos offers a variety of Latin foods, but it’s the only place I’ve been to that serves mofongo, the traditional Puerto Rican plantain-based dish.
At this point, I have tried almost everything on Coquitos’ menu, and Kiyabu’s dish flavors are so pleasant that it is hard to pick a favorite. Some remarkable ones are the ham hocks and beans, the pernil and the deep-fried chuleta de cerdo.
Peruvian: Mimi’s Place (Ala Moana)
A Peruvian flag swaying by the narrow door indicated that I’d reached my destination: Mimi’s place is a hole-in-the wall, BYOB restaurant that sits about 20 people at a time near Ala Moana Center.
Reggaeton and Cumbia play in the background while one of the owners, Katya Rivasplata, comes to talk story and explain the dishes. She takes pride in her use of traditional Peruvian spices not commonly found on the island.
Despite the slightly steep prices (about $15-$20 for an appetizer), the food lived up to my expectations. The zesty three-ceviches combo was fantastic and couldn’t taste more authentic.
Colombian: Mami’s Empanadas (Downtown Honolulu)
The Colombian food truck parked close to the Honolulu Zoo was the first Latin American type of cuisine I spotted in Hawaiʻi. I’ve been to its downtown location several times ever since.
In Hawai‘i since 2013, Mami’s Empanadas has two locations: one in downtown Honolulu that serves plate-lunch style meals to business people on the go, and a food truck in Waikīkī. I’ve had its sofrito chicken and arroz con pollo topped by Arango’s green sauce: just enough heat to bring out the dish’s flavors before the next bite.
Although I am not a big fan of arepas, when I found that chef Alex Arango – a Colombian from Medellin – adds his own twist to the dish-making, I thought it was worth a try. Instead of sticking to corn, he uses green plantains and adds ingredients such as pork belly and chicharron to the mix, so the flavors are infused in the dough.
Venezuelan: El Chamo (Kakaʻako)
As I looked around the lit-up space where long picnic tables were set, I noticed people from all over Latin America that’d stopped by to grab dinner: diners from Puerto Rico to Guatemala to Colombia to Venezuelans sought some comfort food in the back streets of Kakaʻako. Different Spanish dialects and accents filled the air while we waited for the food to come out; conversation ran easily about the intricacies of life, both back home and in the U.S.
In my first visit, I ordered cachapa, a Venezuelan-style pancake filled with a type of queso blanco (white cheese). On the side came a reasonably sized portion of deep-fried yuca (cassava). It was a generous meal that cost about $15.
The food truck owned and managed by Mirey Alvarez is home to traditional Venezuelan arepas and queso de mano, a local cheese she imports straight from the country. With so many yummy-looking foods, the place is worth several visits to explore the menu.
Brazilian: Crispy Grindz
I’ve had my fair share of searching for Oʻahu’s best açaí. I’ve also mentioned a few of my country’s favorite dishes in previous articles. But, on the island there are no Brazilian restaurants that offer meals or plate lunches.
The closest I could find is a food truck that sells popular Brazilian snacks, such as coxinha and pastel. Crispy Grindz has three stores, with its flagship one located in Hale‘iwa. Owned by Christiane Jansen, the food truck’s been around since 2008. The Brazilian food truck is a mandatory stopover whenever I am on the way to Banzai Pipeline.