Tasty Thoughts (Fall 2016, Oct 10th)

Amigos Taqueria

A Food Review by Contributing Writer Alexandra Huizar

For those of you who do not know me, my name is Alex, and I am a proud Californian of Mexican heritage. I was born in Los Angeles and raised in San Diego - two of the best cities in California to experience authentic Mexican cuisine. As a result, I have been surrounded by quality Mexican food my whole life, and each unique taste is home to me.

When I first moved to Hawaiʻi, I experienced a significant culture shock. I grew up in towns that boasted Mexican culture and its influence on the American Southwest. Hawaiʻ’s Mexican presence is little to none and, from my experience, it can only be found in the very few Mexican restaurants or stores scattered throughout the islands. Because of this, I have searched for four years for a Mexican restaurant in Hawaiʻi that has authentic tastes, and can make me feel like I’m in a home away from home.

Quite recently, I decided to test out Amigos Taqueria in downtown Hilo - a relatively new addition to the local restaurant scene, having opened its doors this May. Amigos Taqueria competes with other local Mexican restaurants such as Lucy’s Taqueria and Reuben’s Mexican Food.

Located at 250 Keawe Street, Amigos Taqueria advertises on their website, social media, and storefront that they serve “authentic Mexican food” and, furthermore, that they offer “the best Mexican food in Hawaiʻi.” After reading this, I first turned to Yelp for guidance, like many of my fellow foodies do. I found very positive reviews from fellow Mainlanders, who were accustomed to authentic Mexican food as well, so naturally I became very excited having read that the food was good, and that the head chef herself was from Mexico. As someone who does not like the very popular Lucy’s Taqueria, and finds and Reuben’s Mexican Food a bit too expensive for regular consumption, I became very excited at the possibility of Amigos Taqueria becoming my new go-to Mexican food supplier in Hilo - without me having to cook it!

When I arrived at the taqueria, I couldn’t help but smile - the place looked and smelled like a small taco shop you would find in Los Angeles, which is a scene all too familiar for me. As I ordered, I noticed the price range was very affordable with the most expensive dish being no more than $15. Overall, I paid about $30 for three tacos, an ahogado (also known as wet) burrito, and carne asada fries. These are all dishes I would typically order on a regular visit to the taco shop. While I am used to getting all of this food for quite a bit cheaper, I understand that there is a bit of a price premium because we live in Hawaiʻi.

Like any good Mexican restaurant, we were complimented with chips and salsa while we waited for our food. I easily recognized that the chips were homemade. As a child, I made chips at home with my mother many times, so I recognized the layers of thin dough that get deep fried to make into chips. However, the chips tasted more like buñuelos Mexicanos, a deep-fried thin dough that is typically made during the winter holidays; after being fried, this dessert dish is then tossed in cinnamon and sugar. As I ate the chips from Amigos Taqueria, I found myself wanting to toss them in the sugar mixture and not salsa. While the chips were very delicious, the taste was very misplaced. It was sweet instead of salty, and did not pair well at all with the very watery salsa they served us.

Three tacos plate
Three tacos plate

Indeed, the salsa had almost no taste. There was no signature Mexican acidity or spiciness to it; it simply tasted like tomato and onion water. This is a sin when it comes to Mexican food, and it is, in my opinion, very hard to mess up salsa. Because of how plain the chips and salsa were, I continued into the main dishes with lowered expectations. I began with my three tacos. I ordered one carne asada (thin marinated beef) taco, one al pastor (meaning: style of the shepherd, spicy marinated rotisserie pork) taco, and one carnitas (meaning: little meats, tender pork that is simmered in oil or lard) taco.

A Mexican restaurant can shine in three areas: the meat, the salsa and sauces, and the tortillas. This is because you will encounter these staples in almost every dish you will try. The three tacos each had their own grievances meat-wise, but let us first discuss what they all had in common.

Each taco was topped with cilantro and chopped white onions; this is a typical topping on tacos, and it is important that the cilantro and onion enhance the flavor of the meat marinade, which in most cases it does. In this case, it did not. The cilantro used was not fresh and the onion was very sweet. I do commend Amigos Taqueria for buying local onions, but the sweetness of the onion overpowered any flavor the meat had, and would have been best left away from the tacos altogether.

The corn tortillas, however, were quite delicious and it was another instance where I immediately knew that they were homemade. I was very happy with the quality of the tortillas and it made eating the tacos quite bearable. So, at least they passed the tortilla test!

Of all three of the meats in these tacos, the carnitas meat was the only one that tasted like it was supposed to - but it is, in my opinion, hard to mess up carnitas meat, since you are simply boiling the pork with oil. The al pastor meat had all the minor taste elements it was supposed to EXCEPT the spiciness, which is the focal point of the dish! Finally, the carne asada meat was simply unflavored and tasteless. It was also extremely tender; it fell apart too easily, and tasted like it had just been boiled. While there are many different techniques in marinating carne asada, it is unacceptable to serve anything remotely bland like this.

Carne asada is used as the main meat-ingredient for many common Mexican dishes, especially for small taco-shops, and it acts as the pinnacle of taste. Amigos Taqueria’s carne asada lacked any seasoning, and it spoke to me that there was little effort put into this important meat. I was very unhappy knowing that the next two dishes I was trying included carne asada as well.

Burrito ahogado style
Burrito ahogado style

The next dish I sampled was a carne asada burrito, ahogado style. This is commonly known as a ‘wet burrito,’ which is smothered in thick red enchilada sauce and cheese. Because I ordered the burrito ahogado style, I had a small sliver of hope that the flavor of the sauce would correct the mistakes of the carne asada that would be found in the burrito. The carne asada burrito was served wrapped in a 13” flour tortilla stuffed with carne asada, refried beans, Mexican rice, and salsa. However, all hope was lost when I bit into the burrito and tasted...absolutely nothing. There was no flavor at all to anything in the burrito and it left me utterly confused at how this was possible at all. I took about three bites into the burrito until I decided to give up because it was toying with my emotions. The burrito looked beautiful on the outside, but on the inside...there was nothing. I cannot comment on the taste of a dish when there was nothing to taste. Even as I write this review I am having a hard time describing my experience with this burrito other than confused, betrayed, sad, and angry.

My last dish to try was the carne asada fries which is a dish very popular in California. The carne asada fries include french fries topped with carne asada, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, and a melted Mexican blend of cheese. To my un-surprise, this dish was disappointing as well. When I arranged a forkful of the carne asada fries, I made sure to have at least every contributing topping on my fries. But, as soon as I bit down onto the food a very strong taste swept over my mouth and it was one I was not expecting. There was a strong mask of sweetness. It was as if the french fries had been deep fried in a sweet-tasting oil, or as if the french fries themselves were sweet potato fries - and I could not taste anything else. It was at this point that I did not give the dish, or this restaurant, another chance. I failed to understand how even this could have been messed up so badly.

Perhaps my downfall was the high expectation I had for this restaurant. Having said that, I fail to understand how they can advertise their food as “the best Mexican food in Hawaiʻi” if their food is utterly flavorless. And, if you do happen to taste something, you taste an uncharacteristic sweetness. There was absolutely no signature Mexican acidic or citrusy tastes in the food - and definitely no spiciness, which is a hallmark of Mexican food.

Maybe Amigos Taqueria was once a great Mexican restaurant with bountiful tastes, which is why it had so many great reviews. Perhaps they are now catering to their main population of locals who may not like acidic tastes and spiciness. But that does not make it okay to offer tasteless, unflavored food and call it “the best.” I can understand a lower presence of spiciness to cater to local tastes, but there still should be some hint of Mexican zing - especially in the salsa!

The best part of my dinner at Amigos Taqueria was leaving and taking a free Cookies n’ Cream Hershey’s Kiss from their “Thank You” candy tray by the cash register.

I would rate Amigos Taqueria a 0.5 stars out of five, only because the corn tortillas were good. My dissatisfaction with this restaurant does not give me any motivation to riddle my review with fun puns or vivid words - like in my review of Saucy Dogs last issue - because I am not happy at all with my experience. I no longer wish to recall my time at this restaurant, and what’s worse is that I now have a $30 hole in my bank account I cannot undo.

Carne Asada Fries
Carne Asada Fries

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author