A little bit of Mexico City springs up in McCully
By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
By Helen Wu
The story of Los Chaparros is a passionate tale about salsa — the liquid-hips dance and the lively sauce.
It began four and a half years ago when Lisa and Mario met while salsa dancing one evening in Honolulu. The California girl and Mexico City boy soon found happiness and marriage. Instead of making music, however, the newlywed Barrons created a wonderfully mellow and smoky salsa — a most agreeable match for crunchy tortilla chips.
Not long after, they began a hunt throughout their adopted Island home for good Mexican cuisine in an eatery with ambience. Alas, their quest went unfulfilled, until, one day, they had a grand idea.
Why not apply her business savvy, gained from working at Hilo Hattie, to his restaurant skills, learned from working his way through the kitchens and dining rooms of California Pizza Kitchen and Compadres?
The Barrons decided to start their own restaurant. It would be a place possessing the qualities they could not find elsewhere — a place where you could go to celebrate, yet be comfortable sharing a quiet meal as well.
In the space that was King Tsin restaurant, the couple toiled for three months. Burdened by a limited budget, the couple decorated walls using a palette of earthy colors, Diego Rivera prints and a large tapestry with a distinctive Aztec design. Two water fountains evoke the feeling of a Mexican courtyard.
A final obstacle awaited them, however. The Barrons had the difficult task of naming their restaurant. They were warned that if they chose a Spanish name, it should be a word that could be uttered easily by all. As they pondered the matter, it suddenly occurred to them to use the endearing nickname given to them by friends.
Lisa stands a petite 4-feet-9. Mario is barely 5-feet-4. Los Chaparros means "the shorties." You do the math.
The Barrons opened their restaurant in September. Lisa confessed, "We don't claim to be chefs ... We want to offer home-style cooking." But they unveiled a smart menu with some surprises.
And here is where your humble reviewer comes into the story.
Although jalapeno wontons with ranch dressing ($6 for 7 pieces) are a popular appetizer, I preferred the zesty ceviche ($7, made with red snapper on my visit). The tangy lime-juice-macerated fish also bested shrimp cocktail ($7) with a ketchupy sauce.
Two hearty sopas (soups — $4.50 small, $5.50 large) had startling flavor. Vegetable soup was full of garbanzos and chunks of celery, carrot, zucchini and potato. Chiles emboldened the thick, filling sweet cream of corn and green chile soup.
Pozole rojo ($5.50 small, $6.50 large; available weekends only) was tender morsels of pork and hominy in a soothing, meaty sauce. Lettuce, onion, radish and a lime wedge on the side are a Mexican equivalent to the fixings that come with the classic Vietnamese soup pho. It was served with shakers of dried oregano and chile flakes.
Combination plates ($8.50 for one item, $12.50 for two, $15.50 for three) arrive with a choice of fluffy Mexican-style rice and creamy beans or soup or a house salad. The chimichanga's flaky, pie-like crust won me over in a way that a slightly tough and chewy carnitas sope did not.
You get a choice of French bread or tortillas (corn or flour) for sopping up delicious sauces that accompany specialty dishes ($10 to $17) served with rice and beans. Chile Colorado ($13 for steak or chicken) lived up to its description of a "rich, deep red sauce"; the flavor complemented its meat nicely.
Mole — that sweet-and-savory sauce made with chocolate — isn't easy to find in Honolulu, and Los Chaparros prepares a good version ($13), with tender chicken breasts smothered in a sauce of assertive depth.
Mojo de ajo ($14), prepared with large, succulent shrimp or firm fish sauteed in garlic and chipotle-pepper-infused olive oil, combined spices and herbs in just the right flavor-enhancing proportions.
This is also one of the few places on O'ahu that includes rice, beans, lettuce, guacamole, salsa, sour cream and a choice of fillings in its super burrito ($8 to $11).
Housemade desserts were unexpectedly light and welcome after a meal that could easily leave you feeling stuffed. Flan ($3.50) was amazingly delicate and smooth. An airy chocolate-Kahlua cake and a simple bread pudding ($4; $5 ala mode) were served warm. The horchata ($2), a sweet, ground-rice drink, is one of the best I've ever tasted.
"We went from one kind of salsa to another," Lisa said in summing up the couple's story. If you walk into Los Chaparros today, you will still hear the music, and your appetite might be stirred, too.
Reach Helen Wu at email@example.com.