Still going strong: Reuben’s Mexican Food celebrates 40 years

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Reuben's Mexican Food in downtown Hilo has been open for 40 years, 39 at their 336 Kamehameha Ave. location.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, Reuben Jr., Reuben and Sue Villanueva show off the festive decor of Reuben's Mexican Food in Hilo, which the family has operated for 40 years.

Reuben’s Mexican Food is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month.

The restaurant, which opened in June 1979, has been at 336 Kamehameha Ave., adjacent to the Hilo Farmers Market, for 39 of those years. According to Sue Villanueva, she and husband Reuben’s original location was at the corner of Keawe and Ponahawai streets now occupied by Bytes and Pieces of Hilo.

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The couple met when Reuben Villanueva Sr., originally from Nayarit, a state in western Mexico, came to Hilo to visit his brother and stayed. He was working as a waiter at the former Plantation Village restaurant in Waiakea Villas and his wife-to-be ferried rental cars between Hilo and Kona.

Reuben Villanueva’s family owned a restaurant in Mexico, so the couple decided to follow suit.

“He knew everything about running a restaurant,” Sue Villanueva recalled. “When I first met him, I knew nothing about Mexican food. Nothing, nothing, nothing — never even tried it. I don’t think we even had Taco Bell at that time. Norberto’s was down the street. Norberto’s was the only Mexican restaurant here.”

Norberto’s shuttered in the late 1980s, leaving Reuben’s as the lone purveyor of Mexican cuisine in Hilo for decades. Sue Villanueva described the restaurant’s fare as “Nayarit-style Mexican food.”

“It’s real different compared to all the Mexican foods,” she explained. “Every time I travel, I always like to eat different Mexican food, because it’s all different. You’re not going to find the same kind of Mexican food in different places. Where Reuben comes from, they’re big into shrimp and fish.”

The Villanuevas both kept their jobs in the beginning “because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” according to Sue Villanueva. She described the couple’s initiation into restaurateur ownership as “real scary,” with business slow in the beginning.

“I was born and raised here. People here did not know anything about Mexican food, nothing whatsoever. Just Norberto’s California style of Mexican food,” she said. “And believe it or not, the majority of our first customers were the local Japanese from here. Until today, they still come here. You’d think tourists, but we don’t live off of the tourists. We do get them. But it’s not the tourists who support us. It was the local Japanese, at first, and slowly, the locals of other nationalities started coming. “It was really amazing.”

As for Reuben’s most popular menu items?

“Enchiladas, flautas, chile rellenos — those three are our No. 1 sellers.” Sue Villanueva said. “Now we have a combination plate with the flauta and chile relleno, the flauta and crab enchilada. “

Four decades later, Reuben’s continues to be a family-run business. Reuben Villanueva Jr. was a year old when his parents opened. Now he’s in charge of the restaurant — as well as the Reuben’s name and legacy.

“I appreciate my son. He works real, real hard,” Sue Villanueva said, beaming with pride. “He has three kids, two boys and one girl, all in baseball. So he’s constantly taking them to practices. His little girl plays baseball and gymnastics. So he comes in early in the morning, cooks, then takes the bar until about 1 o’clock and then he takes his kids to practice.”

Reuben Villanueva Sr., now 72, still works in the kitchen alongside his son. And Sue Villanueva still holds forth behind the bar, as she has for decades, mixing margaritas in myriad flavors for diners and a thirsty pau hana crowd, despite a home fall two years ago that broke her leg and forced her to use a walker plus a heart attack during surgery for the leg.

“The margaritas, I learned from Reuben. I never knew how to make a margarita before,” she said, adding she still tends bar because she was “so miserable” staying home after her mishap.

I told my husband I have to do this,” she said.

The key to Reuben’s success and longevity? “Being consistent,” Sue Villanueva replied.

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“My son and my husband are the only ones who touch the main cooking, the sauces and everything,” she said. “If anyone else did it, it wouldn’t taste the same.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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