Archive | Mexican RSS feed for this section

The Growing Popularity of Mexican Food in Southern New Jersey

18 Dec

The obsession with Mexican style food is a national phenomenon. Books like Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America detail the history of Mexican food in the states how it has become so incredibly popular. He also touches on what exactly classifies as Mexican food. South of the border cuisine has been growing in popularity across the Garden State.

In the past ten years, Mexican restaurants have popped up across southern New Jersey. Restaurant chains touting Tex-mex and Mexican style foods such as Moe’s Southwest Grill and Qdoba Mexican Grill have been opening many new locations. Chain restaurants such as these have proliferated across the region, along with smaller independently owned eateries. You can view a timeline, linked above, to see when and where South Jersey Mexican restaurants have opened.

Before 1990 there were only a few independent Mexican eateries: Los Amigos established in 1976, The Mexican Food Factory established in 1979, and Tortilla Flats established in 1984.  These restaurants have stood the test of time, surviving economic downturns and standing up against competition. “We’re affected by economy more than the competition. The competition comes and goes. Flexibility as far as our chefs, diversity helps us,” said Fred Jones, manager of Los Amigos in West Berlin, NJ. The restaurant has a loyal following of customers, and focuses on keeping returning patrons excited about the restaurant. They have specials that change several times and week.

“The competition comes and goes. We strive to be the best we can be, to always be innovative,” Jones explained. A diversified menu and professionally trained chefs have set them apart from other restaurants.

Newer independent eateries must compete against big chains and each other. About 20 restaurants have popped up since 1999, all of which are listed in the SJ Taco Time map. They are vying to stay in business. “There are a million Chipoltes’ and Moes’ out there. The difference is serving up fresh ingredients and authentic food. Regulars really help keep business going” says Joe Cozzan, owner of Rojo’s Tacos in Ocean City, NJ. The eatery started as boardwalk taco place in 2004 then moved to a street location.

“It’s very hard to compete with chain restaurants because they have so much money and advertising power. So you have to set yourself apart from them. We specialize in tequila, we’re not just a restaurant, we’re a destination.” Says Saul Cordova, Jr. of La Esperanza, which has been open for ten years in Gibbsboro, NJ. Newer restaurants are making their way through the crowd by focusing on minute details like offering a large selections of tequila and using new web marketing techniques.

Cordova explained the importance of innovating marketing, “We try to stay current and relevant in the media. We have a Facebook, we’re part of the SJ Independent Restaurant Association. We have Instagram now, we have to keep with the times.”

 

The SJ Taco Time Map

SJ Taco Time: Reflections

18 Dec

This blog started as an assignment for my Online Journalism class. When I picked a topic, Mexican food in South Jersey, I was familiar with it but over the course of the semester I have learned so much more about Mexican food and culture. I’ve sampled Tex-Mex, classic Mexican food, several gallons of horchata, a few quarts of salsa and mole sauce.

Through visiting restaurants, talking with chefs, friends, and servers I’ve learned that Mexican food is all about feeling at home. It’s about expressing yourself with materials as simple as beans you made yourself or horchata that you prepared for your guests. It is both humble and complex (if you don’t believe me try to make a mole sauce like Plaza Garibaldi).

The focus of this blog is Mexican restaurants but the most popular entries were about cooking at home. A few of my greatest hits:

Making Horchata

Mexican Food In Your Kitchen

Shopping At the Collingswood Farmer’s Market

More than just Tacos at The Tortilla Press in Collingswood

SJ Taco Time Mexican Restaurant Map (newly updated!)

This has been a wonderful learning experience.

El Azteca: Spicy Mole, Fun Atmosphere

11 Dec
Chicken taco from El Azteca

Chicken taco from El Azteca

El Azteca in Philadelphia appears to be a quaint little store front on Chestnut St. between 7th and 8th St. It’s a BYOB that also has a full bar. However, there is a $5 cork fee.

I got a chicken taco and cheese enchiladas with mole sauce. The food was pretty good, the mole definitely had a kick to it.  The atmosphere inside was lively and exciting since there were several large parties celebrating in the restaurant. The price range is middle of the road: dinner entrees range from $11-$15 with a variety of sides. They also have a vegetarian menu.

Enchiladas from El Azteca

Enchiladas from El Azteca

I would recommend visiting the Philly location if you want to have a nice dinner with friends. There is more than enough space to accommodate large groups.

El Azteca also has locations in Mt. Laurel, NJ; Pottstown, PA and Levittown PA.

 

SJ Taco Time Mexican Restaurant Map

1 Dec

I’ve created a map with exact locations of every restaurant reviewed and a few that are to come. I will be updating it accordingly.

Horchata!

17 Nov

I was feeling very creative this week and decided to make horchata. Warning: this project can be extremely messy.

Horchata is a mainstay of Mexican cuisine, it’s a refreshing drink that is a great compliment to spicy food. It is not exactly a Mexican drink since it originated in Spain. Horchata is prepared many different ways. It is generally a rice based drink with cinnamon and milk (but you can make it without milk). “Everyone has a different recipe. Some people use one type of milk, some people use three different kinds of milk,” Juan Diaz, owner of Taquiera La Raza, said.

I chose to experiment and blend a few different recipes together until I got the best tasting combination:

Coarsely blend 1 cup of rice with 4 cups of water and 2 sticks Mexican cinnamon, or 2 tsp of regular cinnamon.

Close up shot of Mexican cinnamon

Let the rice, water and cinnamon mixture sit for at least 3 hours. I let mine soak for about 8 hours.

Blend all of the ingredients until smooth. Then, strain the mixture. I did it several times, you don’t want little grains of rice in your drink.

After that, blend the mixture with 1/2 cup of sweetened condensed milk, 2 tsp of vanilla (you can add more cinnamon if you want)

Finally pour into a pitcher and serve over ice.

The final product was not the milky white I am used to drinking at restaurants, but it was delicious. In the future I’ll leave it to the professionals and grab a cup at La Esperanza or Hammonton’s Taco Truck which I will be writing about in the near future.

 

A Clean Plate Means Good Food for Juan Diaz of Taqueria La Raza

10 Nov

Juan Diaz of Taqueria La Raza


Juan Diaz is the owner of Taqueria La Raza, a restaurant in North Philadelphia, that I have written about before. It is a warm and inviting place that is family owned and operated. Many restaurant owners are invested in their profession, but Juan is an active participant, often speaking to customers directly. He was kind enough to sit down with me and explain what he loves about running Taqueria.

Mexican Food in Your Kitchen

10 Nov

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I usually focus on restaurants, but cooking at home can be just as entertaining. Rather than go out last week, I decided to be adventurous and make something. I made vegetarian tacos. It was simple and  rewarding to enjoy the fruits of my labors.
I made “refried” beans by sauteing olive oil, fresh diced peppers from Stella Farms, onions and three cloves of finely chopped garlic. Once the garlic, peppers and onions were browned, I opened a can of kidney beans and cooked them until they were dry. Then, I added a little bit of water and smashed them, skins and all, with a wooden spatula. Finally, add adobo seasoning, cumin, salt and pepper to taste. It’s that easy.

Also pictured above are fresh tomatoes from Stella Farms, radishes from Savoie Organic Farm, guacamole (two avocados, lime juice, cilantro, kosher salt and black pepper) and sliced ajicito peppers from the Collingswood Farmer’s Market

It took 30 minutes to prepare the meal from start to finish. Cooking at home gives you greater control over what you put into your food and you can save money. The meal pictured above cost $10 and fed three people.