Tag Archives: South Jersey

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

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Spicy Salsa at Fiesta Mexicana in Hammonton, NJ

20 Oct

Chicken enchiladas with mole sauce

Fiesta Mexicana is a personal favorite. It’s great place to grab some food and chat with friends.

Our complimentary chips came with a cool green salsa and a unique, peppery, red salsa that was creamy and smooth.

Tacos Al Pastor

The cactus salad was a hearty dish that combined tangy chopped cactus with crunchy lettuce and cilantro. The chicken enchiladas with mole sauce had a deep smoky flavor. The tacos al pastor delivered on the typical classic flavor, well marinated and salty.

The menu very affordable with entrees starting at $7. There is also a full bar. A pitcher of margaritas was around $25. Next time I will skip the liquor since I am financially challenged college student.

Fiesta Mexicana is located at 327 12 St. off of Route 54 in Hammonton, NJ.

Shopping at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market

20 Oct

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I decided to visit the Collingswood farmer’s market to pick up some fresh (and affordable) produce. The market is a bustling gem set up from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. beneath the  elevated PATCO Speedline off of Collings Ave. I was able to chat with some of the vendors while browsing.

Some highlights of the morning:

I got to sample some pumpkin muffins and a scone from the Treehouse Coffee Shop booth.

Kristen Ippolito, owner and baker of Amaranth Bakery in Lancaster, P.A., hauls her gluten free wares to a variety of area farmer’s markets.

Radish leaves can be cooked and eaten too! Some instructions from Carol Savoie of Savoie Organic Farm: remove the leaves from the radish and place them in a crisper, or the refrigerator. When you’re ready to cook, steam them, then sauté with olive oil and garlic like you would with broccoli rabe.

I also bought some ajicito peppers which have a sweet taste, looking forward to frying them up.

Chef Batista Ernesto on Mexican Food the Puebla Way

13 Oct

Chef Batista Ernesto and myself at The Mexican Food Factory

The Mexican Food Factory has been around about as long as rice and beans, since 1979 to be exact. I decided to see what all the fuss was about. The food was simple, colorful and flavorful.

The chef, Batista Ernesto, came by at the end of the meal for a quick chat. He was relaxed and friendly, true to Mexican-style hospitality. He’s from Puebla, a large city in central Mexico.

 How long have you been a chef?

“About seven years.”

 How did you learn to cook?

“I learned from my uncle, he was actually a chef at an Italian restaurant. I cooked with my sister too. I like food, I cook for friends a lot.”

 What is your favorite food to prepare?

“I love to cook fish. Salmon is my favorite, also snapper and tuna.”

 And your favorite food to eat?

“Rice and beans, but mostly beans. My parents say beans are good, the doctor says beans are good. I love them. They’re comfort food.”

What is the most traditional dish on the menu?

“Fajitas are the most traditional mixed with onions, peppers, and cilantro.”

Ernesto moonlights as DJ Tazz in Philadelphia and Camden, he was looking over a set list when I left. The Mexican Food Factory is located on Route 70 West in Marlton, NJ.

More than just Tacos at The Tortilla Press in Collingswood

6 Oct

Tacos are served in a traditional “make your own” platter with warm corn tortillas.

The Tortilla Press in Collingswood is serving up fresh Mexican inspired dishes.

I sat down with Evan Weissman, General Manager, to get some details about the restaurant. The Collingswood location, a BYO, celebrated its tenth anniversary in September. There is also the Cantina in Merchantville, complete with a full service bar which celebrated its fifth year of operation. Weissman described the food as casual gourmet. As an independently owned operation they’re able to go outside the box and provide a better experience for customers. “If people ask for something not on the menu, they can have it their way.”

There are quite a few vegetarian and vegan options including mock duck with peanut butter BBQ sauce and veggie tacos. The gluten-free menu features dishes such as coconut habanero shrimp. The Cantina has gluten-free fish and chips and flour-less chocolate cake. Weissman explained, “A lot of restaurants are not offering gluten-free items, we have a great response. We don’t want to turn those customers away.”

In addition to traditional Mexican fare, there are several distinctive items available. Server and hostess Angela DelRossi described her favorite dish, “The chicken sweet potato burrito is unique to us. I’ve never had that anywhere else.”

Sauteed Achiote Fish Taco from The Tortilla Press in Collingswood

I decided to try the fish tacos. It was served as a platter laden with pan-seared tilapia with achiote glaze, pinto beans, red rice, salsa verde, pico de gallo, and guacamole. Warm corn tortillas were served on the side. The tilapia was well seasoned, a little crispy on the edges, and very flavorful for typically mild fish.

The restaurant’s atmosphere was as colorful as the food. Bright decor and original art adorned the walls. The staff was also friendly and very helpful.

Collingswood is a tight-knit community. The restaurant’s owner, Mark Smith, works closely with local farmers to supply fresh produce. The Tortilla Press Cafe is at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market every Saturday. The restaurant is open for brunch on weekends (with a special early bird brunch menu) there’s a take-out menu too.

Oct. 14-19 is Fall Harvest Restaurant week. Both locations will offer four course meals for a set price of 29.95/person.

The Tortilla Press is a nice place to stop for lunch while perusing the shops on Haddon Avenue or to enjoy a four course meal. The gluten-free and vegetarian options make it a great choice for friends and family with dietary restrictions.

Lindenwold’s La Esperanza, “A symphony of flavor”

29 Sep

Tacos de Pollo at La Esperanza

Last night I went to a highly recommended  restaurant in Lindenwold named La Esperanza located on Gibbsboro Road. It’s  impossible to miss, it’s a large pink building. The atmosphere was very cozy and inviting. There is a bar at the front of the restaurant so if you weren’t in the mood for an all out dinner, you could certainly have a seat and a drink.

The guacamole appetizer was enormous and very good. I decided to get tacos de pollo (chicken tacos) which were delicious, and so generously proportioned that I could only eat one. My friend decided to get the tacos de carne asada (grilled steak tacos). He described the taste as, “A symphony of flavor.”

The house margaritas were excellent and not too sweet or watery. There was a large variety of cocktails, margaritas, and imported beers

The overall experience was great, the staff was attentive and helpful, food was very fresh and portions were quite large. Esperanza is also very affordable; the bill was around $50 for two meals, appetizers and drinks. I will definitely return.