At this Hawai’i restaurant, Mexican food and community upliftment go hand in hand

Angela Ruiz (center) with a cohort of youth training at Hungry Coyote. Photo provided by Hungry Coyote.

When Angela Ruiz read about Nezahualcoyotl, the philosopher king of Texcoco in pre-Columbian Mexico, she found the name of her restaurant. The ruler ushered in Texcoco’s Golden Age, introducing law, scholarship, and art to the region. So when Ruiz opened her first restaurant in 2021 in Lahaina, Maui, she named it Hungry Coyote, the loose translation of Nezahualcoyotl. In him, she saw the “embracing of human potential, the importance of community, and the celebration of vibrant culture,” she says. 

And she saw all of that in her restaurant as well—to not only serve Mexican food, but to train and empower disadvantaged and special needs youth, too. Four teenagers have completed Hungry Coyote’s internship program, and six more are currently in training; so far, at least one has gone on to work in restaurants. They learn everything from the dishwashing station to the front of the house (taking orders) to the hot line (prepping and cooking). “We are serious with serving guests, [but] have fun with a close-knit, family-style atmosphere,” Angela says.

The youth also learn about the restaurant’s menu, which draws on Angela’s experience growing up in the predominantly Hispanic Norwalk neighborhood of Los Angeles (she always thought she was Latina, only to find out she’s actually Spanish, French, and Dutch), as well as those of her husband, Marcos, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico. 

three ceviches on a plate

Ceviches are a highlight on the menu at Hungry Coyote. Photo provided by Hungry Coyote.

Due to its location, Hungry Coyote is a rare experience blending Hawaiian and Mexican influences. Ceviches star on the menu: a traditional one highlights locally caught mahi mahi bathed in lime; a tropical variation mixes mahi, pineapple and papaya; and a vegetarian version features fresh hearts of palm, the crisp, sweet vegetable grown on Hawai‘i Island.

The catch of the day—ono, perhaps, or ahi—arrives on blue corn tortillas made every morning by Angela’s mother. And birria tacos are made with brisket rubbed with ancho chilies, bay leaves, and cumin. It’s cooked for hours and then shredded and stuffed into tortillas with queso fresco, griddled, and served alongside beef consomme for dipping.

To lead the kitchen, the couple brought on Destiny Aponte, a chef who also works with youth to involve them in agriculture and the culinary arts. She’s also introduced several new plant-based dishes to the menu.

birria tacos

Birria tacos are among the popular menu items at Hungry Coyote. Photo provided by Hungry Coyote

Now, Angela’s days—running restaurant errands in between shuttling some of her trainees from school to sports—look different from her previous work as a program director for the special victims unit at the district attorney’s office. In that role, she handled domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and homicide cases and wrote grants to assist those in need. “It was very heavy, very intense work,” she says. “But fulfilling, [to see] people persevere through traumatic experiences.” 

With Hungry Coyote, her purpose is still similar. In addition to teaching teens restaurant work, she sets them up with basic life skills, like opening bank accounts and writing resumes. She also shows the possibilities a small restaurant in a strip mall holds. That life takes work, but as Hungry Coyote’s cheerful interior, live music, and comforting menu of chile verde and tres leches cake attest to, it’s also about joy. 

The exterior of hungry coyote

Hungry Coyote is located in Lahaina, in Maui. Photo provided by Hungry Coyote

Martha Cheng is a writer based in Honolulu. Find her on Instagram.

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