Vanessa Wolf is a former head chef. She offers her frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Maui’s culinary scene.
By Vanessa Wolf
Critiquing Mexican (or any cuisine, really) food on Maui is the social media equivalent of wearing a “kick me” sign to a Tae Kwon Do exhibition.
Clearly, we like to live dangerously.
Similarly, if you enjoy playing fast and loose with your taste buds, Fernando waits for you in all his unpredictable glory.
With not just one but two outposts in Kahului, we started at the Fernando’s Mexican Grill in the Queen Kaahumanu Mall.
Reality check: this is Maui, not Mazatlán.
In other words, chips and salsa will run you $3.
In return, you receive a fresh, flavorful, garlicky salsa, but pace yourself: it arrives strictly rationed.
Lift your tiny, empty ramekin above your head and wave it desperately all you want. Your waitress will be very, very, very hard to find.
The real life “Where’s Waldo?” situation will wear you down, and in frustration, you’ll turn your attention to the accompanying chips.
The totopos themselves are a plentiful homage to artificial coloring.
Nothing says “we did not make these chips here” quite like the defiant, fiery radiance of a corn-based crimson tide. If only the rest of life were available in such technicolor hues.
As the Red Dye #40 courses through your veins, a new waitress appears and announces that she has taken over your table.
You may then find yourself ordering the Fish Ceviche ($7.50).
The resulting portion is humble, but boldly flavored and undeniably fresh.
Fish, tomatoes, cilantro and onions are marinated in a powerful – dare we say overwhelming – quantity of lime juice and oregano leaves. The three slices of avocado on top are not quite enough to temper the aggressive acidity.
We love ceviche, but this one made our tongue hurt.
In contrast, our Chicken Hard Tacos plate was bland ($9.25). James Bland.
They looked the part – a generous portion of pollo topped with the requisite Los Gringos crowd pleaser of shredded iceberg lettuce and cheese – but the buck stops there.
The flavors are weaker than an 18-year old Shih Tzu and the accompanying rice and beans didn’t help.
If only we could get our hands on more of that closely guarded salsa to pep things up…
Enter the Fernando’s location in the Kau Kau Corner of the Maui Marketplace and their glorious, bountiful salsa bar.
We bellied up to the counter and ordered the South of the Border Equalizer, a.k.a. the Chile Relleno Plate ($12.75), the baseline by which all Mexican restaurants can be judged.
Granted, they didn’t come with the traditional Ranchera sauce – the omission of which seems to be a Maui thing – but the fresh poblano pepper was seeded, overstuffed with cheese, dipped in a spot-on egg batter and fried to, well, perfection.
The impeccable rellenos are accompanied by three corn tortillas, some typical “meh” Spanish rice and a hearty portion of refried beans that tasted like a mix of Boston baked beans and burn.
Not our bag.
On the upside, within the nest of superfluous shredded iceberg also on the plate rests some traditional guacamole.
Also expertly prepared, you can have more than just the lettuce-strewn dollop for $4 (4 oz.) or $7 (8 oz.), and we suggest you do.
Although we adore Rellenos and have long employed them as a culinary yardstick, our soft spot for Camarones a La Diabla ($12.75) may be even more pronounced.
This “Devil’s shrimp” dish is known for its spice level – Chef Rick Bayless’ version calls for ten guajilllo chiles AND a half cup of hot sauce – and rich balance of flavors.
From Fernando we received eight crustaceans in a truly infernal sauce: thick, with strong smoky chipotle overtones, the red seasoning packs some serious, unholy heat. We wish there was a little more garlic and onion flavor to round things out, but we appreciate the willingness to bring the fuego.
Speaking of the fiery heat, the good news is that the shrimp seem to have been sauced at the last minute, so if the diabolical gravy proves too much for you, scraping some off is an option.
For those who dare to ride the snake, it’s like standing in the heat of the barrio back in Juarez, the sun beating relentlessly on your face while donkeys bray pitifully in the distance, as if verbalizing your internal agony.
It’s like taking a journey to the third circle of Dante’s hell, where – stomach bloated and taste buds in full insurrection – you fraternize and commiserate with other gluttons, lamenting your appetites for all time.
Something like that.
Once again, the accompanying sides fell a little short. The rice was exactly what you’ve come to expect from Mexican American fare and the same burned flavor haunted the refried beans, giving us PTSD flashbacks to our childhood, where pretty much everything got accidentally charred and then served anyway.
You may like them that way. We don’t. Tomato, tomahto.
Just to be fair, we ordered both dishes – Rellenos from the Queen K location and a take out order of Camarones from Kau Kau – with markedly similar results.
Our final verdict?
- The Rellenos are a rock solid choice.
- Definitely order some additional Guacamole.
- If you consider your mouth a heat-seeking missile, the Camarones a La Diabla will not disappoint on the spice front.
- Lower your expectations on the beans and rice – they’re just filler anyway – and call it a day.
For those who dare, see you in the third circle of the Inferno.
Fernando’s Mexican Grill is located at both 270 Dairy Road and 275 W Kaahumanu Avenue in Kahului.
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