All in the Familia
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When Sergio Arellano was younger, his mother gave him some advice that made a lasting impression on the young chef.
“She said, ‘You can go to the best chef’s school in the world, but if you don’t have it here,'” Arellano says, pointing at his mouth, “‘then you don’t have it at all.'”
Born in East L.A. and raised in Mexico City, Sergio Arellano became interested in cooking when he was a child, watching his grandparents and his father in the kitchen. “I liked the intensity of flipping and stirring!” he says.
By the time Arellano met his wife, Kailua native Claudette Cabral, he was a chef in Las Vegas, often cooking thousands of meals at a time for conventions. When the couple came to Oahu for a visit, and Arellano could find no Mexican cuisine that suited his finely tuned palate, he decided to bring the flavors of his childhood to Honolulu.
Serg’s Mexican Kitchen opened in September 2009, and it was an immediate hit in densely populated Manoa Valley. This past December, the Arellanos launched a new location in Waimanalo, in the space formerly occupied by Ken’s Bakery. It’s hard work, but they’re not complaining.
“At the end of the day, it feels good,” Sergio Arellano says. “We’re doing it for ourselves and our family.”
Family’s a big word for the Arellanos. Both locations of Serg’s Mexican Kitchen are staffed with their relatives — daughters, nieces, sisters. Perhaps most importantly, many of the recipes come from Serg’s family back in Mexico City.
The refrieds are black beans, just like Arellano’s grandmother used to make. “I was raised on them,” Arellano says. “We start with dry beans; we get here at 6 or 7 in the morning just to get them going.” The carnitas (Mexican pulled pork) is also made according to a family recipe — his father’s, Arellano says. “And my grandpa made a living selling tamales. They were the best! My dad is coming here to show me how to make them.”
Ultimately, Arellano plans to introduce his family’s tamales as a special. He has already perfected his chiles rellenos and will offer them as a special during the first week of March. Other specials are currently in development, including sopes — thick masa tortillas topped with meat, salsa, queso fresco, and lettuce — and pambazos, rustic white bread dipped in guajillo chile sauce, lightly fried and stuffed with Mexican chorizo and potatoes.
“That’s my favorite!” says Claudette Arellano. “I’ve never seen pambazos in Hawaii; I’ve only seen it made by my mother-in-law.” She smiles at a customer who orders lunch in heavily accented English. About 80 percent of the restaurant’s guests, she estimates, are Mainlanders; many are from the West Coast, some even from Mexico, and pretty savvy when it comes to Serg’s food. “It’s so fulfilling when one of them eats here and says, ‘Wow! This is good.'”
“I can honestly say I have the best Mexican food on the island,” Sergio Arellano claims with pride. “Everything I serve is authentic.” The focus is on traditional ingredients: guajillo and pasilla chiles, queso fresco (fresh cheese), chorizo that Arellano swears is the best he’s ever eaten, and therefore the only kind he’ll serve. Diners who order Burritos ($8.75) are offered a choice of grilled chicken, steak, shrimp, bean & cheese, vegetables, chile verde, carne asada, carnitas, or al pastor–seasoned pork cooked, like gyro meat, on a vertical spit. Menudo, Mexico’s famous tripe soup, is available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for $5.95 per bowl. The Mexico City Style Tacos can be ordered with chorizo, carnitas, chicken, carne asada, chile verde, or al pastor ($2.75 each) or fish ($3.25 each).
Each week Serg’s celebrates Taco Tuesdays, which begin at 4 p.m. and last till closing, by dropping those taco prices to $1.50 for chicken, pork, or beef, and $2 for fish. In Manoa, hungry college students begin lining up shortly after 4. In Waimanalo, word is spreading about the excellent new Mexican place next door to the post office. Both locations are low-key and friendly, and have elements often found in taquerias and mercados: brightly colored decor, mariachi music on the stereo, and a salsa bar with five freshly housemade varieties. Patrons 21 and over may bring their own sangria or cerveza — there’s no corkage fee — and Serg’s also offers a variety of authentic non-alcoholic beverages.
“We have Mexican drinks only, ranging from Jarritos (a popular brand of soft drink, South of the Border) to horchata (made with rice water, cinnamon and sugar),” says Claudette Arellano. “We even have Mexican Coca-Cola!”
Serg’s Mexican Kitchen
- 2740 East Manoa Road
- Honolulu, HI 96822
- 41-865 Kalanianaole Highway
- Waimanalo, HI 96795
- (808) 988-8118 (Manoa)
- (808) 259-7374 (Waimanalo)
- 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
- Monday – Saturday
- 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.
- 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
- Monday – Saturday
- 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.