Sexy, Modern Mexican With Flair

This month marks the one-year anniversary for Tortilla Republic Grill and Margarita Bar in Koloa. I love this place. It has a sexy flair that ignites my inner Salma Hayek and tosses my taste buds into a tango.

The two-story building faces the courtyard of The Shops at Kukui‘ula, and with no outside walls diners can people-watch while being fanned by the trade winds. Downstairs in the Margarita Bar, beignets and bacon flights are served for breakfast; the lunch menu reflects the dinner menu, and the happy hour menu features $5 margaritas and tapas such as the quintessentially Spanish Patatas Bravas: fried potatoes dusted with smoked Spanish paprika and served with fresh aioli and Rioja sauce.

Upstairs, 20-foot-high Mexican wood doors carved with floral designs guard the entrance. A buttery onyx bar, also imported from Mexico, is lit from underneath. Contemporary world music plays, there are leather tables and pigskin chairs, and the waitresses wear dresses made by a local tailor.

With nine types of salt — including a 2,000-year-old chunk from Puru that gets shaved on top of the Pisco Sour — and 17 chilies in the pantry, owners Morten Kaag, John Halter and Jordan James spare no expense when it comes to eating well. Serving modern Mexican, the exquisite food is fresh and layered with complex flavors.

“Modern Mexican takes the foods from different areas of Mexico,” explains James, who is a former chef, “and makes them healthier. We don’t use lard; we don’t use a lot of salt. This isn’t the usual suspects.”

Chef Cathy Shyne created the recipes for the Tortilla Republic menu over the course of five years. Throughout her career she has trained with famed modern Mexican chef Roberto Santibanez, and has years of cultural experience with Mexican cuisine.

Tortillas and chips are made fresh every day using masa harina, a corn flour made from freshly prepared hominy. Salsas also are made in house and include salsa de mesa, a spicy blend of charred vegetables; the Oaxaca, made with dried pasilla peppers, sweet papayas and smoky chipotles; and the tomatillo salsa is garlicky, bright and slightly spicy. The Salsa Tasting ($4.50) comes with all three and chips.

There are 80 tequilas behind the bar, and a full menu of Margaritas ($9.50 to $13.50), including the spicy Po‘ipu Heat made with chili water, Hydration made with coconut water, and the Perfect Margarita made with lime juice, agave syrup and rimmed with flaky salt from England’s Maldon Sea.

“Upstairs, we make our guacamole at the table,” says James.

“With a molcajete!” adds Pedro Armington, an Irish-Puerto Rican whose only job at the Republic is to make guacamole tableside ($15.75) every night.

Pedro puts fresh serrano and jalapeno chilies, white onion and sea salt in a traditional Mexican version of the mortar and pestle, and grinds it into a paste. There are three of us at the table, and Pedro adds one Hass avocado for each of us. He mashes it and folds in diced serranos, jalapenos, tomatoes, cilantro and lime juice. You can specify your heat preference, and I’m pleased that the medium has a good kick.

Thinly sliced jicama forms “tortillas” for the Tacos de Jicama ($12). The juicy vegetable is wrapped around a succulent mixture of shrimp, chipotle mayonnaise, avocado and corn salsa. It’s a savory appetizer that’s light and fresh.

The Ahi Crudo ($14) features sashimi-grade ahi tossed with sea salt, toasted coriander seeds, avocado and lime. The raw fish is mounded on a pool of silky piquillo pepper vinaigrette, and it’s outstanding!

I judge a good Mexican restaurant by its mole, a labor-intensive sauce made with up to 100 ingredients. Tortilla Republic’s Mole de Pasillo Enchiladas ($20) are right on. The complex flavors are spicy from three types of chilies including anchos, warm cinnamon and rich chocolate. The enchiladas are drizzled with crema (Mexican sour cream) and come with mint-flecked rice, and black beans cooked with toasted avocado leaves.

When you dine at Tortilla Republic, you can count on high-quality ingredients, unique food parings and layered, complex flavors. A risky combination considering the majority of diners go for what’s familiar.

“I trust our customers,” says James, “and when you’re here, I want you to feel like you’ve left town. And we’re in Hawaii! If you’re in Hawaii, and you think you’ve left town, you’ve got the right idea.”

Tortilla Republic 742-8884 Margarita Bar: Breakfast 7-11 a.m., Lunch 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Dinner 5-10 p.m., Happy Hour 3-5 p.m.
Grill: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.