Comida Mexicana al Gusto
Navigating New Jersey can be challenging, even for natives. A little local knowledge (like stay off Route 206 at rush hour and avoid Route 1/9 through Elizabeth if it’s raining) is invaluable. Eating well in New Jersey requires similar skills. Ethnic-food fans know our state’s diversity means almost every global cuisine is available here, somewhere. In our newest regular feature, Edible Jersey will be your FPS (food positioning service) navigator as we explore our state’s ethnic-food geography along with the founder of Ethnic NJ. The first delicious installment: Mexican food.
Like many Americans, Ortega Taco Dinners were my Italian- American childhood introduction to “Mexican” food. Since then, however, I’ve sampled a wide range of authentic Mexican cuisine, from Yucatán’s cochinita pibil (marinated pork slow-roasted in banana leaves) to Baja California’s fried fish tacos with cabbage and lime. I’ve learned that Mexican tacos are wrapped in soft, handmade corn tortillas and can be filled with pork, lengua (beef tongue) or other mouthwatering fillings. The best chiles rellenos are coated in fried egg. And Mexican hot chocolate, thick with a hint of chile, is a treat not to be missed.
So it has been with eager anticipation that I have watched authentic Mexican restaurants sprout up all over the Garden State, many in unexpected places. More than 200,000 New Jersey residents claimed Mexican ancestry in the 2010 Census, the second-largest Hispanic ethnic group after Puerto Rican. Ten percent of them live in Monmouth County. And two towns, in particular, have become enclaves for outstanding Mexican cuisine.
Freehold, once known more for being a signpost on the back roads to the Shore and the hometown of Bruce Springsteen, today boasts a half-dozen Mexican restaurants. There are a couple of Tex- Mex places on Main Street that attract a mixed crowd, including many non-Latinos. But just around the corner, on the side streets, are the no-frills storefronts serving trueMexican comfort food, mostly to the local Mexican-American community.
The menu at Fonda Bahia de Acapulco on South Street in Freehold emphasizes home-style Mexican cooking. Miguel Gonzáles, who cooks there, says most of the customers hail from the Mexican states of Puebla, famous for its mole poblano, and Oaxaca, where chicken is served with the even darker mole negro. “Mexicans will order different tacos, fish dishes, and specialties like the sombrero ranchero—grilled beef, chicken, cactus, peppers and onions served in a stone molcajete with queso fresco,” says Gonzáles. “Non-Mexicans tend to order the burritos and enchiladas.” Oaxacan tlayudas—a large, thin, fried tortilla covered with beans, meat, pork lard, cabbage, cheese and avocado—are on the menu at La Nueva Placita, a small market with a food counter next to the train tracks on Throckmorton Street.
Head east from Freehold on Routes 18 and 36 to Long Branch, birthplace of both Dorothy Parker and Springsteen, and you will find one of the highest concentrations of family-runMexican restaurants in New Jersey. Once the summer seaside retreat of U.S. presidents, downtown Long Branch today is a year-round destination for eating hearty comida auténtica at one of a dozen Mexican places along Broadway.
El Oaxaqueño is one of the best. As soon as you walk in, you’ll note the telltale signs of a good ethnic restaurant: a huge handpainted mural along one wall, television in the native tongue of the proprietors, and unlabeled spicy condiments on the table. The dining room has about a dozen tables and does a bustling takeout business from the front counter, where pollos rostizados (rotisserie chickens) turn bronze and crispy. Service is attentive, friendly and more or less bilingual, though knowing some Spanish will certainly help. A basket of homemade tortilla chips quickly arrives to accompany the spicy salsas, a red mole and a green tomatillo. On one visit, my daughter ordered a chicken burrito, filled with shreds of that slowroasted chicken, which could have fed a small family. Try the chicken with mole Oaxaqueño, a powerful, spicy and complex sauce colored so red it’s almost black. Sample the traditional molcajete Oaxaqueño as well, washing it down with a cane sugar Mexican soda (toronja—grapefruit—is my favorite flavor), or a licuado— fruit shake.
For some of the best Mexican tacos anywhere in New Jersey, do not miss Taquería La Valentina, a food counter and café tucked into the back of a grocery store on Broadway. Enter through the narrow aisles stacked high with Mexican goods under piñatas hanging from the ceiling, or through the back entrance from the parking lot. Freshly made tortillas have an unmatched toasted corn flavor and chewy grilled texture, and La Valentina’s are made right there behind the counter. Tacos are available with 13 different fillings, from lengua (beef tongue) to barbacoa de chivo (shredded barbecued goat) to tripa (tripe), and everything in between. The taco al pastor (marinated pork) I ordered was served in tasty soft tortillas with chopped onion, pineapple and cilantro, accompanied by radish slices, a roasted scallion and whole hot pepper on the side. Squirt some lime juice over it all and it is the perfect Mexican mouthful—or three. Ana Ochoa, the enthusiastic proprietor from Jalisco, added the Taquería to the grocery two years ago. While a success with her Mexican customers, she says the food counter gets few non-Mexican customers. “We would welcome them to try our food,” she adds in Spanish, smiling broadly.
Entrepreneurs abound in New Jersey’s family-owned Mexican restaurants. Down the street from El Oaxaqueño, brothers Giddel and Fredy Gonzáles Estrada have opened Rokamar Restaurant, taking over the space from another Mexican eatery. The brothers had worked in other New JerseyMexican restaurants while saving money to open their own. After three years looking for the right opportunity, they chose to invest in the Long Branch location. According to Giddel, “There’s still room in Long Branch for new places. It’s a nice town with a large Mexican community.”
As in Freehold, the best Mexican food in Long Branch isn’t chain restaurant “Mexican” where the menu has been diluted for perceived North American tastes. Instead, in most of these restaurants at least two-thirds of the customers are Mexican. Some dishes on the menu—tacos de cuerito (pork-skin tacos) or chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips smothered in red or green mole)—may be unfamiliar to non- Mexicans. Most restaurants are simple establishments where you can eat a lot for a fair price: three overflowing tacos cost around six dollars. While English is often the second language, menus include English translations and most servers speak some English. But a language barrier won’t keep you from enjoying some of New Jersey’s most delicious—and authentic—Mexican food.
Miguel Gonzáles of Freehold’s Fonda Bahia de Acapulco is from Mexico City, so I asked him where to find typical Mexico City food in New Jersey. He has yet to find a spot for carne suadero tacos or chicharron prensado (pressed pork rinds), two staples of the Mexican capital, but he’s heard of a Lakewood food truck serving some Mexico City items. Time to break out the map and head to Ocean County.
SURROUNDED BY FLAVOR
Ana Ochoa arrived in Long Branch from Jalisco, Mexico, some 20 years ago, when she was “younger, but not so young,” she says in Spanish with a small laugh. She and her husband Carlos’s first local business venture was a music store on Broadway selling the rock, pop, mariachi and norteño discs popular with the local Mexican community. They’ve owned their Mexican grocery in Long Branch for eight years, and started serving authentic Mexican food there in 2010.The tlayudas (Mexican “pizza”), barbacoa de chivo (barbecued goat), and caldos de mariscos (seafood soups) have been a big hit with Taquería La Valentina’s largely Mexican clientele.
Ana only cooks at home for her husband and three kids. She entrusts the kitchen at LaValentina to Juana Garcia, from Oaxaca, the home state in southern Mexico of many Mexicans living in New Jersey. “I tried putting a mole from Jalisco on the menu, but people didn’t like it,” says Ochoa.“It’s sweeter than the Oaxacan moles they are used to.”
I ask Juana, the cook, how old she was when she learned to make the dishes she prepares daily at La Valentina. “I was so young, I don’t even remember,” she replies in Spanish while deepfrying large pieces of pork skin for crispy chicharrones.“The food is all around you, you just know it.” —A. Ewing
TAQUERÍA LA VALENTINA
186 Broadway, Long Branch
Fonda Bahia De Acapulco
5 South St.
A colorful storefront restaurant serving traditional Mexican home cooking, with Acapulco-style seafood dishes like mojarra frita (fried tilapia) and camarones a la diabla (spicy shrimp).
La Nueva Placita
52 Throckmorton St.
A small market with a food counter serving tacos, tortas (sandwiches), sopes, tamales and tlayudas (“Mexican pizzas”), among other traditional Mexican food.
9 Memorial Parkway
Order the sopes de pollo, three thick fried tortillas topped with shredded roast chicken, lettuce, tomato, queso fresco and crema.Their huge burritos are easily a meal for two adults or three small children, and the full menu features a wide range of Mexican entrees, from mole Oaxaqueño and chilaquiles to molcajete Oaxaqueño and queso fundido.
A foodie find in the back of a grocery store, this food counter serves spectacular homemade tacos—with 13 different fillings. The menu includes breakfast plates, tortas, tamales, quesadillas and a wide range of entrées, from cesina ranchera (Mexican salted beef) to chiles rellenos.
Acapulqueños Mexican Grill
Order the shrimp tacos at this comfortable spot owned by Acapulco natives.