Michoacan-born chef claims cantina makes the ‘hottest salsa in the world’
If you want to have “death by salsa” and then come back more alive than you’ve ever felt before with clear mental faculties and sinuses and sweat on your brow, raring to go like a bull about to chase a matador, then dine at Nachos Grande Cantina in West Maui.
Situated in its own free-standing building at Honokowai Marketplace, Nachos Grande Cantina kicks up its heels from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., with Mexican food service until 9 p.m. daily — and the chef there claims that he makes the “hottest salsa in the world.”
As a longtime dining writer, I’ve had some devilish brews put in front of me with everything from habaneros to Scotch bonnets to Carolina Reapers to Trinidad Scorpions and even Indian Bhut Jolokias.
The latter is Indian for ghost peppers. But Nachos’ Chef Miguel Reyes has another name for it.
“I use ghost peppers, also known as Chile Fantasma,” said Reyes, asking if I needed some milk to cool my palate on a recent visit. “On a scale of one to 10 ghost peppers are a 10. But I also make a nice green tomatillo salsa with avocados that’s a three on the hot scale and Miguel’s salsa that is a four in heat. People are very curious. They drive from all over the island to try the hot one.”
While I declined the milk, the minute Reyes walked away I started to regret it. Although I dipped the tortilla chip into only a miniscule amount of salsa, my face flushed, my eyes watered and my mouth caught fire. But after the initial heat subsided, I dipped a chip into more. And more again. It had subtle nuances and depth of flavors and was fantastic with carne asada tacos fanning the flames.
You may also accompany the Mexican meal with beers from south of the border, margaritas and tequila shots. If you enjoy the Chile Fantasma salsa in larger amounts than I did, milk is the antidote, and thankfully, Reyes always likes to keep it on hand.
“Miguel Reyes is from Michoacan, a state of Mexico, and he’s really turned the kitchen around,” says owner Margaret Gerner. “It’s what we call Mexican-Mexican cuisine. It’s not Tex Mex. He has his own little touch.”
“I’ve been a chef for 22 years,” says Reyes. “Remember Chico’s Cantina? I was working there as a teen. I cooked at Moose’s, Mango Cafe and more.”
Reyes is renowned islandwide for his mole that features 20 Mexican ingredients, including ancho, pasilla, cascabel and guajillo peppers. His posole and menudo attract the Mexicans among us, whom Reyes said, “generally put four or five chile peppers in their pockets.” Hmm . . . for eating before or after the hot salsa?!
Another top seller is the tacos al Pastor, and other fillings of ground beef, chicken, fish, shrimp or lingua (tongue) go flying out the door as well.
The chile-verde macho chimichanga is for hungry eaters only. “Nobody else makes it,” says Reyes. “Everything I do here is from my grandmother’s and my mother’s recipes. It’s the old-school way of cooking. It motivates me. People from California and Texas all tell me, ‘Your food is good and we know good Mexican food.’ “
Taco Tuesdays offers $2 tacos and $4 Bud Lights. You may also catch NFL action Mondays and Thursdays with $1 off draft beers.
“I like how my dad adds his own touch to everything,” says son Mikel Reyes. “His chile relleno with ranchero sauce is the best I ever tried. And his Chile Fantasma salsa, it’s so spicy, it’s crazy.”
For catering parties inside the cantina, dine-in or take-out, call Nachos at 662-8565 or 662-0890.