Pau Hana Patrol: Pablo’s Cantina offers regional dishes from around Mexico
Party people of a certain age will remember the craziness that used to go down on the regular at Compadres during happy hour.
Widely recognized as the originator of the “Taco Tuesdays” concept here in Honolulu, the Mexican restaurant on the second floor at Ward Centre was an anchor tenant for years, attracting both local residents and tourists with quality food at affordable prices. But unlike fellow longtime Ward Centre neighbor Ryan’s Grill, which was able to weather the economic downturn of recent years, Compadres was forced to call it quits in 2008.
That was a sad time for many downtown office types and other professionals – and not just on Tuesdays, but most other weekdays as well. In addition to their tasty $1 tacos, Compadres often worked with local promoters and bands to offer a variety of pau hana entertainment. It may not have been hip or trendy at the end, but the restaurant was always a solid go-to pick for kamaaina with its convenient location in urban Honolulu.
Where: Ward Centre
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
» 4 to 7 p.m. daily in the restaurant’s lounge, with a late-night option from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Fast forward to October of this year, and a strange sense of deja vu exists when walking into what is now known as Pablo’s Cantina. Enough time has passed that former Compadres regulars will know things are different, but they’ll probably have a hard time remembering exactly what those things are after countless tequila-soaked nights at the Pablo’s predecessor.
The best place to pau hana at Pablo’s? The outdoor bar. There are six barstools here, although the bar does continue indoors where more seating is available. In addition, a second counter area is built into a wall overlooking Ala Moana Boulevard, which provides spectacular views of Ala Moana Beach park (and traffic speeding by directly below). Another half-dozen tables round out the outdoor seating options.
A recent Tuesday afternoon visit showed that Pablo’s still has quite a bit of work to do in getting people back to the restaurant. We had no problem finding a place to sit just after 5 p.m. that day, and it never really started to feel too crowded until more than an hour later.
The taco setup, however, was just as we remembered it – a couple of employees had a table set up outside, with one of them serving up five different types of fillings at $1 (beef, chicken) and $2 (al pastor, carnitas, fish) each. Lettuce, salsa, guacamole, sour cream and cheese are all available in containers off to the side. Hard shell corn tortillas are the standard, although I learned later that soft corn tortillas are served by request (employees hide them in warmers, while the hard shells sit out in plain view).
Another tip on “Taco Tuesdays” is to bring cash, as the taco bar is separate from the regular restaurant operation – meaning you can’t run a tab and you can’t use a credit card to pay for those cheap tacos. While understandable, it’s still not a good look to make things more difficult for customers than it needs to be.
So, how were the tacos? Not bad. But in a town that has seen tacquerias and taco trucks pop up all over the island in 2010, the bar has been raised – even for “Taco Tuesdays.” I can appreciate a $1 taco like anyone else, but if I can get something better at Tacos Ricos or Zaratez Mexicatessen, guess where I’m going to go, happy hour or not?
LUCKY FOR PABLO’S, it’s not just about the tacos during happy hour.
If money isn’t an issue, you’ll be much better served by some of the other items on the menu. I probably won’t go back for cheap tacos anytime soon, but you can bet I’ll belly up to the bar here for an order of shrimp cocktail ($10.95) within the next couple of weeks. Served in a tall cocktail glass, the shrimp is mixed with pico de gallo, avacado and a Mexican cocktail sauce mixed with clam juice. Drink that stuff up with each bite of shrimp, followed by a swig from your Corona (if you’re so inclined), and you’ll quickly find yourself in a state of blissful content.
The Guacamole A Tu Mesa ($11.95) is also worth the price to see your dish prepared tableside, with more than enough to share with friends. And since Pablo’s is a full-service restaurant, you can order a complete feast of regional specialty dishes from around Mexico, including Oaxaca, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Pacific Coast.
It’s also worth putting down the bottled beer and opting for one of the numerous specialty cocktails developed by local mixology master Joey Gottesman, who worked with Pablo’s to develop drinks that utilize fresh ingredients and quality liquors. Traditional margaritas are a no-brainer here, but Gottesman has added his own takes on a Roasted Pineapple Margarita ($9), Chipotle ($8) and Ginger Rita the Tita! ($9) that are also worth a try. There are also a variety of sangritas, or non-alcoholic shots of tomato juice with other ingredients meant to serve as a chaser after shots, and canine-inspired items like the Naughty Nahe ($9), “Kuma” Colada ($8) and F.E.A.R. ($6).
In addition to “Taco Tuesdays,” Pablo’s also hosts late night parties on Wednesdays (“College Night”), Thursdays (“Thursday Night Social Hour”) and Fridays (“Fiesta Fridays”), with happy hour prices also offered on Sunday and Monday afternoons during football season. With all those choices, plus quality food and drink, it shouldn’t be hard to find a pau hana option here that suits your own personal tastes.
—Jason Genegabus / email@example.com