Craig Claiborne once described Mexican cuisine, aptly, as “earthy food, festive food, happy food, celebration food.” One thing it’s not is simple, despite the similarity of Mexican menus across the state. The complexity resides in the freshness of the ingredients and the skilled handling of the vibrant spices, peppers and citruses. Our team has eaten widely in order to point you toward memorable meals.—Eric Levin
Abril Cocina, Maplewood
Immensely popular since it opened in 2015, Abril Cocina, with just 40 seats, manages to serve about 150 people on a Saturday night. The draw is the food, which chef/owner Mario Valadez calls “modern Mexican, with some Mexican fusion.” That means, for example, that each taco filling (in a house-made tortilla) is heaped not with the standard chopped cilantro and raw onion, but with a tailored topping. Pulled pork, for example, gets chile ancho barbecue sauce and coleslaw; the Gobernador adds asadero cheese and corn to wild shrimp. Each portion of guacamole, flavored with pico de gallo, pumpkin seeds, salt and lime, is made to order and not over-mashed. Tostadas (especially the octopus and the crab) are hugely popular. In Valadez’s home state of Monterrey, grilled beef is king. Abril Cocina doesn’t have a grill, but his work-around works. He marinates hanger steak and pan sears it to produce the smoky, beefy essence Monterrey is famed for.—EL
175 Maplewood Avenue, 973-327-2023; BYO.
Acapulco makes its tortillas fresh with a hand press (not all Mexican restaurants do). These add flavor and delicacy to its tacos, including standout al pastor (adobo-spiced pork), tripe and lengue (beef tongue). It makes its own queso fresco (fresh cheese), crema (a cousin of crème fraîche, but more tangy), and the crumbly spicy Mexican sausage, chorizo. You can enjoy all three melted in the bubbling, delicious bowl called chorizo fundido. At the bar, small-batch tequilas and mescals, neat or in cocktails, are a specialty.—PM
124 Thompson Street, 908-393-9993.
El Asadero, Passaic
Friday is mariachi night, when a live band adds to the festive atmosphere of saddle gear in the vestibule and sombreros in the window wells. One wall boasts at least 100 framed photos of smiling customers, arm in arm. The good food and full bar can have that effect. Particularly fine were chorizo-fueled enchiladas enchorizadas with plump grilled shrimp. The beans, black rather than the usual brown, were cooked down to a profound pudding. They nearly stole the show from the shrimp. During the day, you’ll find men and women in business attire at the tables—lawyers and civil servants on lunch break. The Passaic County Courthouse is across the street.—EL
305 Passaic Street, 973-272-6785.
Barrio Costero, Asbury Park
Now a year old, Barrio Costero has become a magnet. Even on weeknights, it’s packed with a vibrant crowd. The modern space is spare yet comfortable, the tropical accents artful, the restroom wall art an outrageous hoot. The food and cocktails of executive chef Antony Bustamante and mixologist/co-owner Jamie Dodge are beautiful and bracing, contemporary yet rooted. A citrusy/smoky El Matador cocktail teams well with the mushroom umami and red-mole heat of vegetable huarache. The hiramasa (yellowtail) crudo in bacon jus with diced apple, salsa and spiced salt invigorates the palate. Snap up bacon-belly tacos with pineapple salsa, and finish in a sensory haze of warm mescal chocolate cake beside a smear of dulce de leche with toasted pepitas and chili-lime salt.—EL
610 Bangs Avenue, 732-455-5544.
Chico’s Mexican Grill, Morris Plains
Francisco “Chico” Molina will tell you that his three older sisters spoiled him, but they did not stunt his work ethic.
When he was 16, his sisters, his mother and he came to Morristown from their native Guatemala. After high school, he worked as a bartender, car salesman, mortgage dealer and cook before opening Chico’s in 2015 with his wife. With advice from his Mexican brother-in-law, he learned to cook. He learned well. “Nothing is from cans,” he says. “We do everything fresh.” His black beans, mole poblano and roasted salsa are triumphs. The menu, Molina admits, “is mix and match. In Mexico, they don’t make fajitas or chimichangas.” He does. His shrimp chimichanga with queso sauce is a sensory delight, as are his pan-seared (read: no breading) tilapia tacos in garlic sauce. His tres leche cake stands out for its milky sauce and slivered almonds.—EL
643 Speedwell Avenue, 973-998-8875; BYO.
La Cita Cherry Hill
Like many Mexican immigrants in Jersey, Olivia and Regulo Reyes, owners of La Cita, hail from Puebla, the central state just southeast of Mexico City.
In La Cita’s small, colorful dining room, you can sink into the depths of a brooding, velvety, mole poblano over chicken. Yet La Cita’s best dish is actually a classic from the Yucatán, cochinita pibil, which the Reyeses added simply to diversify their menu. Pork is marinated in the juice of sour oranges and other citruses along with achiote seeds that tint the mixture red and impart a nutty flavor.
In Yucatán tradition, the marinated pork was wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pibil, a pit lined with hot stones. At La Cita, the leaf-wrapped meat is steamed in an oven, emerging as tender as pulled pork. The Reyeses serve it with bracing pickled onions and a fierce habanero salsa. Swaddle it in a warm tortilla and prepare to sweat, just as you would in the Yucatán.—AE
911 Marlton Pike West, 856-375-2194; BYO.
La Esperanza, Lindenwold
Esperanza (“hope”) carried Saul and Susana Cordova and their six children from Puebla to New York in the ’80s. Saul made salads at a Greek diner, moved the family to Jersey in 2001 and opened La Esperanza the next year. One of its best sellers is bistec a la Criolla, a marinated, thin-cut grilled steak over fried sweet plantains with an egg over easy and avocado, plus rice and beans. La Esperanza is one of the few places to find arabes, flatbread tacos originating with Puebla’s Lebanese community. The restaurant stocks 150 Mexican tequilas. Mole poblano, Puebla’s gift to the array of Mexican moles, is here nutty and smoky, with hints of cinnamon and clove. The recipe is reputed to be more than a century old.
Today, the enterprise is run by Saul Jr., 38, and his siblings. He says the third generation, including the two youngest, “11 and 16 years old, work on weekends, and they are learning our legacy.”—AE
40 E Gibbsboro Road, 856-782-7114.