The smell of chilies, warm tortillas, and simmering meat permeates the thick Hawaiian heat outside a nondescript eatery off King Street where patrons hankering for a taste of authentic, unapologetic Mexican street food line up in droves. Inside, chef and owner Paul Zarate stands in a small kitchen that overlooks the quaint seating area of the restaurant that bears his namesake. One of the walls is painted a vibrant red and has been adorned with a small chalkboard emblazoned with the day’s specials. It’s only been a few months since opening, but flocks of hungry customers are making Zaratez Mexicatessen their go-to destination to satisfy their cravings for Mexican food.
Rich in flavor and simple in presentation, the traditional taqueria fare that Zarate aspires to cook up has been prevalent on the mainland but lacking in the islands. “The way we’re approaching our food at Zaratez is really pretty straightforward,” he says. “This is authentic comfort food, and it’s the way my family has always done it. All of my recipes have been passed down through my family, from my grandma’s chile verde to my grandpa’s carne asada.”
Fifteen years ago, Zarate moved to Hawai‘i from his home in Los Angeles. While he’s always had a passion and taste for authentic Mexican food, when he first jumped the pond to Honolulu, owning his own restaurant was the furthest thing in his mind. But after some encouragement from friends, Zarate took a chance and started selling the kind of Mexican food he grew up.
This meant homemade salsas and mulitas; burritos stuffed with slow-simmered chicken; carne asada—the food he was passionate about, which he sold from the trunk of his car to friends in Kaka‘ako, Mānoa, and downtown. The reaction was so positive that Zarate decided to open up a food truck, which enabled him to dish out his fare wherever he could find a parking spot. But even while the food-truck fad had gained momentum in Honolulu, Zarate yearned for a brick-and-mortar location.
“The truck was great, but it was a lot of work,” he recalls. “With the catering we were doing, it was like having two kitchens, and a car. There were a lot of moving pieces to deal with so it just made sense to open up a real restaurant when we found the right space. Home-cooked Mexican food is really special to me. It really defined my childhood. I have so many memories of family barbecues where we’d all gather together and celebrate over the same type of food we’re serving now. It’s great to see how receptive people have been. I’m able to serve people a tasting of my heritage, something that goes way back. That’s pretty special.”
Zaratez Mexicatessan is located at 1273 S. King St. For more information or daily specials, follow them on Facebook or Twitter @zaratez.