Today’s lunchtime opportunity imported us from the vertical landscape of fertile South Kona back to the lowland humidity of Kailua Village in Kona town.
Martha’s Mexican Restaurant, located on Kuakini directly Mauka (uphill) from Big Island Grill resides in a brick-red building that has seen a sad lifetime of various other businesses, let alone color palettes. The latest transformation is more acceptable than the last ‘Pepto Bismol’ fuschia and embodies a style reminiscent of an adobe-walled Mexican hacienda, complete with the arched windows, interior murals and various south-of-the-border tchotchke’s.
As the last one to arrive (naturally), I am able to pause and capture the flavor of Martha’s interiors. Off to my right I detect a raised dance floor and large disco ball hanging from the low ceiling – a sign that there is or may be entertainment in the evenings. The walls are swathed with frescoes of various Mexican landscapes, cacti and hombres. There’s an assortment of shiny paraphernalia hanging about, serapes, sombreros, sports banners and a “dry” bar – anticipating the arrival of a liquor license. I do notice the clean tile floors and after a closer look, realize that despite the fussy ornamentation, Martha keeps a tidy establishment. The Babes are seated smack in the middle of the noticeably empty dining room and I feel as though I am standing in 1960’s Tijuana Tilly’s during siesta-time. Except for the girls, there is one other table with two women who are doing able justice to their colossal lunch portions. One of them gleefully points to her jumbo-sized chicken burrito, which extends out over her plate. I wonder how she can be so slim, yet able to devour portions of that magnitude, and so unabashedly!
Douglas, our waiter and capable son of Martha, quickly appears tableside with pad and pencil. He is very courteous and knowledgeable about the menu, making suggestions for the indecisive ones.
Combo plates with dinner menu items are available today and Ono is the pescado del dia. The Ono must be running – this is the third restaurant that has it featured as the fresh catch! If el pescado is still quivering from the gaf then I am piqued , and I hurriedly order a combo plate of soft ono taco and a pollo tamale. By the time rice and beans are added to the mix, I realize that any dinner plans I might have are D.O.A.
The others ordered varied combinations of fish, chicken or beef tacos, chile rellenos, tamales and pork carnitas. I could flood this page with photos of each dish, however as I began to really look at the pictures taken, the food all looked indistinguishable. Probably the arroz y refritos, languishing under a blanket of molten queso. I know it doesn’t sound very appetizing, but trust me, our selections were undeniably delicioso.
I first experienced homemade tamales in Maui sometime in the mid-eighties while working at the Hyatt Regency Kaanapali in the main kitchen (as a secretary, not a cook). The Garde Manger and his wife were from Mexico and invited me to his birthday party. After much coaxing from Sam’s wife, I tasted his Tamales de Pollo, lovingly crafted from his mamacita’s recipe, and I was hooked! Frankly, I have not had one as good since then, but a few have come close. Somewhere in a box of papers lies the recipe, handwritten by Sam on the back of a utility bill. Perhaps it will surface someday during my final estate resolution.
My only other tamale experience was a bad purchase at the Waialae Drive In theater’s snack bar. Remember “Excellente Tamales”?? Well, I can attest that they weren’t very excellent , and they were microwaved to death; appropriate since the drive in was reportedly built over a graveyard.
Martha’s chicken tamale was delectable, however someone wondered if the masa was made fresh. Apparently it’s nearly impossible to get real masa in Kona. I wouldn’t know the difference. My own tamale had chunks of potato, tender chicken that was finely shredded, and was wrapped snugly in a cornmeal blanket. As for my fish taco, the ono was lightly sautéed, remaining moist and supple. Douglas informed us that all chips, corn and flour tortilla were freshly made on premise. That is an affirmative from our group – we can all attest to the fact that the chips and pico de gallo were not of the garden variety kind and the tortillas bordered on rapturous. In fact, the remainder that were not eaten at lunch were quickly relegated to foam take-out containers. I personally emptied both salsas into my container for transport, as I was not about to leave the remnants of freshly made tomatillo salsa on the table.
Mei had the carnitas platter – large chunks of savory and tender braised pork (not fatty) accompanied by flour tortillas. She had originally wanted to order Birria, a dish unknown to myself, but apparently locally well received, as they sold out the day before. I googled Birria, and found several recipes and explanations, but basically a stew of some type of meat (not chicken), made with roasted and ground peppers, fill a corn tortilla along with onions and cilantro, then seasoned with a squeeze of fresh lime, before dipping into the stew broth. An interesting note I found was that in Guadalajara, restaurants hang goat horns on the wall so that the patrons know that Birria is available. The horns signify “…purported aphrodisiac powers .. presumably tied to the general randiness of the goats from which it is made…”. I looked around and did not see any goat racks.
All meals, except ala carte items, are accompanied by beans and rice, like attendants surrounding the bride on her special day. Warmed flour tortillas arrived in a covered dish, wrapped with a cotton serviette embroidered with flowers and crotcheted lace edges; charming details that show the proprietress is trying her best to impart the vision of homespun goodness.
Here is the rest of the lunch order lineup (which totaled $97 for six of us.. adding 20% tip amounted to $20 each): Rachel was thoroughly pleased with her Chile Relleno-Shredded Beef Crispy Taco combination. Chile Relleno and Crispy Chicken Taco combination plate was Carolyn’s choice, and she didn’t make a sound while eating – an obvious thumbs up! Cindy also enjoyed a Chile Relleno but added a Crispy Ono Taco to her order. Tina followed suit with the Crispy Ono Taco but chased it with a savory Pork Tamale. As Tina mentioned, the only item missing was a pitcher of margueritas, and so we were resigned to their iced tea.
I need to point out that when a restaurant serves beverages utilizing plain water, it should be bottled or filtered and not out of the tap, because we clearly determined an unpleasant suggestion of County of Hawaii’s water treatment.
Kona has seen it’s share of Mexican restaurants over the years, and certainly more than two have been in this very building. Martha’s comes highly recommended by the Babes, and if you can remember to bring your own six-pack of cerveza or thermos of marguerita-tequila mix, it’s an agreeable way to spend lunch or dinner with friends. They even have a large, outdoor patio with umbrella’d tables overlooking busy Kuakini Highway. And on a vogless day, you may be able to see a slight ocean view through the buildings. Martha Machuca is employing her best to bring authentic and quality Mexican cooking to Kona, along with sons Douglas and Reuben plus husband Mario, friends and other siblings – truly a family endeavor.
After letting my lunch settle in a bit, I looked around the restaurant and realized that without the eclectic décor, la comida would be just another lunch, and not an experience. Yes, the food and flavor were quite capital in my thinking, however the genuine care taken by Martha Machuca and her family to make our lunch memorable in order to guarantee our return to her cantina is the reason (as the Terminator aptly put it) that “I’ll be back”.
Because of their attentive service, great food and convenient downtown location with parking, Martha’s Mexican Restaurant gets 5 stars!
Hours: 9 a.m. (yes, they are open for breakfast) to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 327-0025.