Juanita’s Puts the ‘Meh’ in Mexican

August 4, 2013, 12:59 PM HST · Updated August 4, 3:09 PM
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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

The Chile Relleno and Enchilada Suiza. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The Chile Relleno and Enchilada Suiza. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Juanita’s Mexican Restaurant has materialized in the space the former KFC on South Kihei Road left behind.

Similar to offerings typically found in Southern California taco joints, Juanita’s boasts an extensive Mexican take-out style menu.

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We decided to dive into the deep end and start with the gold standard item by which all Mexican restaurants can be judged: the Chile Relleno.

Available as a combination plate ($10.95) or a la carte ($3.95) it arrives exactly as it should.

A roasted chile pepper is filled with cheese, dredged in a light egg batter and fried.

Judgment rendered: Juanita knows what she’s doing.

Our anticipation for things to come was officially at a fever pitch.

The chicken tostada. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The chicken tostada. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

However, if the fresh, flavorful and homemade relleno raised the expectation bar, the grainy chili powder-rich “enchilada” sauce should have sobered us up.

This is a tale of two cities: one with a lot of potential and some solid south of the border offerings and the other side of town where everything is… sterilized.

A pervasive blandness infiltrates most of Juanita’s menu items.

Forget the qualities that make you love Mexican food. They’ve been whitewashed away.

Spice, heat, and rich, complex flavors?

Not so much.

The Chicken Tostada ($6.50) languishes in a featureless purgatory. Shredded chicken, shredded iceberg lettuce, shredded cheddar cheese and a smear of refried beans sit atop a crisp corn tortilla with a dollop of sour cream and guacamole each. It’s perfectly acceptable; it just doesn’t really taste like much of anything.

It takes those punchy Mexican flavors that make you stand up and say, “Ole!” and, well, pass the salt and pepper.

The carne asada taco. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The carne asada taco. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The Enchilada Suiza ($3.95) is a good choice for people who don’t like Mexican food. Shredded chicken is rolled inside a flour tortilla, coated with a sour cream and green chili sauce and topped with cheese. It’s polite and neutral, much as one would expect from anything Swiss.

The Carne Asada Taco ($3.95) suffers from more insipid flavor issues, but comes with your choice of onion and cilantro or lettuce and cheese.

We applaud the first, but implore you: don’t even offer the second option, Juanita.

Lettuce and cheese is for Taco Bell, owned by the Pepsi Corporation. There’s no lettuce in Mexico. We know this. You know this. If somebody wants to run for the border, let them.

Channel your inner Latina, banish the pervasive shreds of iceberg and stand proud.

The fish taco. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The fish taco. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

The Fish Taco ($3.95) was ordinary.

Fresh fish is grilled and topped with iceberg lettuce, cheese, and a sour cream-based sauce. The fish was fresh and well-cooked. There’s potential here covered up with some Americanized meh.

The Veggie Taco Salad ($8.95) is a suburban gringo classic.

In that spirit, it comes through exactly as you’d expect. A good portion of rice, lettuce, tomatoes, black olives, sour cream and guacamole are nestled inside a giant, greasy fresh flour tortilla shell. Resist the bowl and it’s a healthy meal. Give into your baser instincts and you just ate a gargantuan, deep-fried taco.

The Chips and Guacamole ($5.75) brought tears to our eyes… for all the wrong reasons.

It’s a nice-sized vat of fresh guac, but 1) there were no chips and 2) it was utterly featureless.

The taco salad. Our dining companion was pleased. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The taco salad. Our dining companion was pleased. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

Avocado, tomato, cilantro. The end.

Where are the onions, the jalapeños, the lime or even garlic and cumin?

Wishy-washy flavors make us sad.

To be fair, there were a number of items we tried to order that were never available, namely the Ceviche ($8.95 – the fish ordered hadn’t arrived), the Al Pastor Taco ($3.95 – they were still making it) and the Menudo ($10.50 – they were out.)

It’s quite possible these are home runs.

In addition, the staff could not be nicer. If they were selling sweetness and warm fuzzies this place would be standing room only.

And perhaps that’s part of the problem. It’s almost as if someone with irritable bowel syndrome is in the kitchen methodically weeding out any possible irritants to sensitive palates.

Garlic?

Certainly not.

Jalapeño peppers?

Surely you jest.

The guacamole needs a little tweaking. Photo by Vanessa Wolf

The guacamole needs a little tweaking. Photo by Vanessa Wolf.

It’s retirement home Mexican… except for the salsa.

Whoever is in charge of the salsa is a straight guerilla rebel, and we hope they stage a coup.

That salsa is loco.

The salsa alone is reason enough to go to Juanita’s.

She seems to know this. It’s doled out in thimble-sized portions, such that you have to keep going up to the counter and sheepishly asking for more. You do it anyway, however, because it singlehandedly transforms the otherwise bland menu into something worth eating.

When you mix some of the salsa into the guacamole it’s excellent. The tacos come to life. The tostada is good stuff.

Ixnay the iceburg lettuce and cheddar cheese stat. Marinate some onions and jalapeños; shred some cabbage; and bust out some chicharones, lengua and authentic cojita and let the salsa flow free.

Bring the noise.

Bring the funk.

Bring the alpha dog swagger of the salsa to the entire menu, Juanita, and give us a call.

Juanita’s is open Monday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

We welcome your feedback. Please let us know if you hear of any new restaurants opening or reopening, total menu overhauls, or simply know of a hidden treasure you want to share. Have a restaurant you want reviewed (or re-reviewed)? Drop us a line – Vanessa(@mauinow.com)

 

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