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Authentic Mexican fare at Nachos Grande

Carnitas is a dish that originated in chef Miguel Reyes’ hometown of Michoacan, Mexico. Nachos Grande makes an authentic version that is scrumptious. AYA GANZ photos

This week I had the pleasure of eating authentic Mexican food at Maui’s own Nachos Grande in Lahaina. Chef Miguel Reyes, who spent his early childhood in Michoacan, Mexico, took some time to talk story and whip me up some love. Spicy love — the best kind. We talked spice, regional Mexican cuisine and love of food.

When you walk into Nachos Grande, the aroma and the decor are inviting, alluring and familiar. The music is charmingly authentic and Reyes has tiny racks laden with various dried chiles imported from Mexico, while the shelves behind the register are filled with local avocado and citrus. Did I just leave Maui for a moment? Food has a way of taking us traveling through our taste buds. Mexican cuisine is a vast cornucopia of unique varieties depending on the origin of the dishes. Lucky for us island folks and visitors to Maui, Nachos Grande’s menu has been hand-selected from the best of what Mexico has to offer.

Michoacan is located in the western part of Mexico, south of Mexico City. The translation of its name means the “place of the fisherman” and Reyes tells me his mother and grandmother are alive in the menu here. Carnitas, which means “little meats,” is the undeniable classic Mexican dish the world has come to love, and it actually originated in Reyes’s home- town of Michoacan. You get carnitas by braising or simmering pork in lard or oil for many hours until the meat becomes delicate, tender and utterly scrumptious. So, I had to take my host’s suggestion and go for his special local treasure. As they say in Mexico, it was, “muy bueno.” Something else I didn’t know, corn wraps, such as those used for Mexican tacos, come from the southern part of Mexico, while flour is more predominantly used in the north. Europeans influenced the culture and food of Mexico, with the south being more indigenous and “Indian.”

Reyes told me that the crowd at his restaurant is a mixture of locals and tourists who all love his food. The beef he serves in his tacos, burritos and in the plate dishes, is prepared in the barbacao style. Barbacao, not to be confused with barbecue, is meat that is cooked in a large pot with broth, fresh onion, tomatoes and spices like pepper and cumin. So, the meat is steamed, unlike barbecue which is cooked on a grill and fire. The taste of barbacao is outstanding.

You know what I love? I love hot sauce! Reyes makes four! Yes, four different kinds. My kind of place. There is the ghost pepper sauce known in Mexico as chile fantasma, for those of us who really like it hot. It’s called El Diablo, or the devil. This one will leave you wanting a glass of agua on the side! Then there’s Reyes’s signature sauce, the “El Guapo,” which was Reyes’s nickname as a kid. El Guapo means the handsome one, which is a fitting name for this hot sauce: roasted chiles, bold in flavor with a medium heat. Reyes also has a classic red chili sauce and a classic green chili sauce made with spicy tomatillo peppers, one of my all-time favorite flavors.

Daniela Flores and Miguel Reyes are shown behind the counter at Nachos Grande in Lahaina.

For my meal I tried the pork carnitas chili verde plate. The meat was perfect! A comfort dish features fall-apart tender pork served in a classic green verde sauce, onion, garlic and a flavorful combination of light spices. The plate was served with heavenly Mexican rice and scrumptious refried beans topped with shredded cheese. For carnitas lovers, this is a must order dish. It comes with corn tortillas. A real heart warmer!

Reyes told me I had to try his beef fajitas. Twist my arm. The meat was perfectly spiced and sauteed with fresh tomatoes, onion and garlic. The rice, the beans, the works! I kept eating even though I wasn’t hungry. Thank the heavens for to-go bags!

The newest addition to Reyes’s menu is a glorious pitaya flan; a creamy classic to which Reyes has added local pitaya, what we call red dragonfruit. No real dining experience is complete without dessert, so I took some flan home. I was so glad I did. Flan is a light, delicate dessert and Nachos Grande’s is luscious. The pitaya (dragonfruit) is an original twist and the color reminds me of Mexico. Nachos Grande, the whole experience, was bright, happy and authentic. Hola aloha!

* Nachos Grande, 3350 Lower Honoapiilani Road, Lahaina. Call 662-0890.