Mexico in the middle of Harbor Mall

As I am walking upstairs in the Harbor Mall toward Mariachi’s, I hear bachata, my favorite music, coming from the restaurant. I already like the place before I even enter. Stepping in only adds to my initial feeling. The colorfully painted walls, with different everyday scenes, are decorated with framed black and white pictures. Everywhere I looked there were bright decorations, like sombreros, sarapes and banderas. One entire wall has an Aztec pyramid.

I was led outside to the balcony, overlooking Nawiliwili Bay. I immediately noticed the salt and pepper shakers made out of Coronita bottles on all tables —  a classic Mexican restaurant touch I have not seen since I left California. The place was packed and lively.

The restaurant was opened March 27, 2006, by Hector and Emilia Portillo. Originally from Guerrero, Mexico, the owners proudly represent what they call a mixture of Guerrero and Guadalajara-style cooking.

I asked for a special quesadilla that was not on the menu. It was no problem creating my own kind. The crispy grilled flour tortilla with shrimp, veggies and cheese served quickly was exactly what I had in mind.

“The quesadilla is a homemade large flour tortilla and we cooked the shrimp with little butter,” manager Rosa Aguirre explained.

If you like meat, go for the carne asada quesadilla-grilled tortilla with melted cheese and broiled top sirloin, guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream ($13.95). Chicken fans would enjoy the quesadilla ranchera — flour tortilla with chicken and cheese, topped with ranchero sauce, sour cream and guacamole ($13.75). Or keep it simple with the flour tortilla quesadilla — grilled flour tortilla with melted cheese ($7.95).

“I love my job. I like interacting with the customers and love a busy night,” Rosa said between running from the bar to the kitchen and back among the tables.

There were a couple of big parties sitting on beautiful bamboo chairs, having a laugh. All of a sudden most of the lights were shut off and a little candle flame made its way to one of the parties. Three of the waiters and the manager sang a happy birthday song and ended it with a loud matraca sound. It was all very festive. I overheard the table next to me comment that they felt like they were in Acapulco. I have never been there, but I definitely felt I was somewhere in Mexico.

“I like working here. It is a mellow atmosphere with almost all family that operates it. I am the only ‘guero’ token around here,”  waiter Dylan Haight said, having a laugh with Rosa.

The restaurant is open daily 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. They stay open past midnight on Thursdays when there are specials for the harbor ship workers.

“We wait for them,” manager Rosa Aguirre said with a big smile on her face.

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