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.
Folklore Artisanal Taco, West Orange
Sergio Capdevielle Sr., 65, is a man of many talents. For years in his native Puebla, he taught college business management and economics, and sold tacos in street fairs when school was not in session.
“He was a hit, always sold out,” says his son, Sergio Jr.
The family moved to New Jersey in 2015, and last summer opened Folklore Artisanal Taco. Father and son rebuilt the interior together, with Sergio Sr. creating all the charming and artful signage and decorations. He is also the chef. His menu draws from many regions and includes some dishes rarely found in New Jersey, like hibiscus-flower tacos from Mexico City and cachetada from Puebla City, a tasty sandwich of Oaxaca cheese, pineapple, cilantro and onion pressed flat between two tortillas.
Most distinctive is cacaleño, from the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. Mixed cheeses are pressed on a griddle. They crisp up, yet remain flexible. Topped with guacamole and pico de gallo, the cheese functions as a tortilla, uniquely textured and flavorful.—EL
57 Harrison Avenue, 973-324-2208; BYO.
La Hacienda, Paterson
Over the last 20 years or so, owner Tony Campos has made La Hacienda, squeezed between the Passaic River and highway-like McLean Boulevard, a something-for-everyone hit. A mariachi band plays on Sundays; the central bar has big screens that draw a sports crowd; the servers are friendly and enthusiastic. The menu is partly Tex-Mex, but the ceviche is fresh and good (if heavy on the raw onions), and the mole poblano over chicken pays heartfelt tribute to Campos’s native Puebla.—EL
102 McLean Boulevard, 973-345-1255.
El Guacamole, Millville
In Millville’s percolating Glasstown Arts District, you will find a wine shop, art galleries, an old theater (recently promoting a psychic showcase)—and El Guacamole, the Reyna-Herrera family’s cheerful storefront. Matriarch Paulina Reyna, an immigrant from Oaxaca—the Pacific region famous for mescal, moles, chocolate and more—opened El Guacamole with her husband, Eric Herrera, in 2015. Their daughter and twin sons wait tables, and her mother, Lidia, does all the cooking.
A number of Oaxacan specialties stand out on the pan-Mexican menu, notably Lidia’s plush tamales Oaxaqueños and her Enchiladas de Abuelita (“granny”), featuring her “secret mole recipe, a bit sweet and spicy,” says Paulina. “We believe in organic and fresh food, and we support local farmers,” she adds. “My husband personally harvests the tomatoes himself.”
As for the namesake guacamole, it’s made with organic ingredients: Mexican avocados, lemons, local tomatoes, onions, cilantro “and a secret ingredient I am not going to reveal.” You’ll just have to go.—AE
110 N High Street, 856-300-5433; BYO.
Las Lomas, Hammonton
Hammonton, famed for its blueberry farms, deserves to be celebrated for its Mexican food as well. According to the U.S. Census, Hammonton’s Latino population, which is largely Mexican, grew 65 percent from 2000 to 2010 and is still growing, thanks to immigrants who came to work the farms and stayed to raise a generation of new Americans.
Siblings José and Maria Martinez left Durango, in northern Mexico, in 1986. With their parents and siblings, they worked their way up the East Coast, harvesting fruit and vegetables, finally arriving in Hammonton in 2006 to pick blueberries.
“Young and full of dreams, we decided to settle in New Jersey,” says José, 31. In 2009, they opened Las Lomas (“the hills,” of which Durango has plenty). It features several grilled dishes of Durango. Las Lomas is the best of Hammonton’s many Mexican restaurants, and most of its items are under $10. Standouts include the succulent pork-topped tostada Toledo; braised beef barbacoa tacos; and crema poblano pepper soup, which has a vegetal earthiness and slow-building heat.—AE
8 Railroad Avenue, 609-567-3001; BYO.
El Matador, Bloomfield
Laid off from his R&D job at Novartis in 2010, Mucio Lucero started driving his mother along with her homemade tamales, pozole and stews to Upstate New York farms, where Mexican field hands eagerly snapped up the tastes of home. “My mom’s food was so popular, we decided to open a little deli in Bloomfield in 2013,” says Lucero, who had emigrated with his family from Puebla to New Jersey in 1983. Diners here went equally wild for mom Francisca’s fattily flavorful pulled-pork tacos in handmade tortillas; sopes topped with meats, veggies, scratch-made refried black beans, crumbly queso fresco and Mexican crèma; and short-rib enchiladas drenched in what Lucero, 40, calls an extra-spicy, “country-style” mole (mo-lay) poblano that takes Francisca, 65, and her sister a full week to make. (It has less chocolate and sugar than what they consider city-slicker versions.) “It’s hotter in the farmlands, so the hot chile helps us sweat and cool off,” he says. In 2015, El Matador moved to larger digs. Mom’s still in the kitchen, sisters Isadora and Christina tend tables, and a cousin delivers her luscious tres leches cake for dessert. It’s a family affair you won’t want to miss.—PR
418 Broad Street, 973-748-1707; BYO.
Mexico Deli Restaurant, Passaic
Even in a cuisine known for large quantities of enjoyable food at a modest price, Mexico Deli stands out for value. On a menu where the most expensive item is $9, the pambazo sandwich costs $7.50—but you get two, both huge.
The 12 types of tacos, served on double tortillas, cost $1 to $1.50 each, and the quality of the meats (we tried al pastor, carnitas, chorizo, lengue and cabeza) is excellent. Cabeza, essentially beef cheek and other head meat, can be gristly; ours was all tender meat. The server offered to put the chopped cilantro and raw onions on the side, maybe because we were the only Anglos in the restaurant (at lunch on a busy weekday). We declined, but if you have a limited tolerance for raw onion, it’s not a bad idea, because it lets you concentrate on the flavor and texture of the meat.
The restaurant is an offshoot of the original Mexico Deli, a takeout, two doors down. The restaurant is lively and colorfully decorated with tasseled, piñata-like sculptures suspended from the ceiling.—EL
141 Market Street, 862-249-1114; BYO.
El Michoacáno, Vineland
Covering about 70 square miles, Vineland is the state’s largest city by area and the agricultural hub of South Jersey. Its farms support generations of Mexican immigrants who have put down roots here.
José Garduño, 62, founded El Michoacáno in 2004 to celebrate the cooking of his native state, Michoacán, in southwest Mexico. Michoacán is famed for its carnitas—chunks of fried pork—and as you’d expect, the carnitas tacos here are a specialty. The carnitas work especially well as the filling in tacos dorados—tortillas rolled up like cigars and fried until crispy.
About 70 percent of El Michoacáno’s customers are Latino. On Sunday, Garduño serves a prized delicacy: birria de chivo (braised goat) tacos, with a traditional side of meaty broth. The dining room, painted tropical red and orange, is decorated with sombreros and a giant anthropomorphic taco character depicted on one wall.
On my visit, a Mexican-American mother was coaching her young son to roll the r in tortilla. You’ll feel welcome whether you can roll an r or only a soft tortilla.—AE
216 South West Boulevard, 856-690-9191; BYO.
Oasis Mexican Grill, Collingswood
On Collingswood’s Restaurant Row, it’s worth venturing a few blocks west of the main action to the 32-seat corner storefront that, in 2015, became Oasis Mexican Grill. Inside, chef/owner Rogelio Garcia and his family focus on the food of their native Puebla.
Garcia, 50, began cooking in his hometown of Xixingo de los Reyes at age 16. One of his Puebla specialties is pipian verde, the garlicky, herbaceous green sauce whose key ingredient is ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds). “It’s very labor intensive,” says his son, Alberto, who manages Oasis and translates for his father. “We make it true to how it’s done in Puebla, using a hand-cranked grinder.”
Generously ladled, the sauce adds irresistible vivacity to enchiladas or thin, pan-seared pork chops.
For dessert, it’s hard to choose between the fried sweet plantains with sweetened condensed milk and the hot, crispy, doughnut-like churros with strawberry ice cream. So don’t. Have both.
In addition to putting Oasis on Open Table, a rarity for mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants, Alberto created an Instagram feed and posts pictures that amount to visual catnip.—AE
498 Haddon Avenue, 856-858-1807; BYO.
El Oaxaqueño, New Brunswick
At 8 pm on a recent Friday, when other Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood were sparsely occupied, every table at El Oaxaqueño was full, and people were standing in the doorway waiting for takeout orders.
Nearly everyone was Latino. Amid the line of tables that face the open, luncheonette-like kitchen, a four-piece mariachi band in white cowboy hats was playing and singing, gratefully pocketing the occasional bill from an appreciative customer. Soon they left and made their way down the street, true wandering minstrels. Then a woman clutching flower bouquets came in, selling them for $10 apiece. She found a few takers.
Meanwhile, the kitchen of the 10-year-old restaurant kept churning out heaping platters of food, many from Oaxaca, the homeland of husband-and-wife owners Adrian Juarez and Virginia Santiago. Typical was the burro mole, bulging with chopped pork and drenched with dark mole, melted cheese and crema.—EL
260 Drift Street, 732-545-6869; BYO.
Órale, Jersey City
The name, pronounced “au-ra-lay,” is Spanish slang for, “Hell, yeah!” Which is the vibe radiated by the bounteous aromas, rock soundtrack, young crowd and every inch of merrily macabre wall painting. The food and cocktails are equally spirited and creative. Chef James Muir, who opened Órale in 2013 with two old friends he worked with at Rosa Mexicano, presents a mole budin that makes pulled chicken a finger-licking fiesta. On the Eat My Guac menu, the add-ons are worth agonizing over.
Taco toppings riff on the filling, as in a recent duck-confit taco with blackberry port wine reduction, blackberry crema and red cabbage slaw. Finish with the most sophisticated tres leche cake yet, a layered cylinder of lemon-poppyseed pound cake in a moat of strawberry Grand Marnier coulis.—EL
341 Grove Street, 201-333-0001.
Pancho’s Mexican Grill, South Bound Brook
Recent arrivals from Oaxaca, Francisco Vazquez and Elvia Gonzalez met in New Jersey in 1988 and married the next year. Vazquez worked as an audio-video technician, while Gonzalez slowly became an expert cook, “mostly through long phone calls with her mom in Oaxaca,” says her husband. “Now she has all the secrets.” You can taste the proof at Pancho’s, which they opened in 2012. Her enchiladas verdes, filled with tender pulled chicken, swims in a sprightly green tomatillo sauce and is lavished with lettuce, onions, melted cheese and squiggles of sour cream. It’s Pancho’s bestseller. Equally worthy, and better than most you’ll find, is her pambazo, a king-size sandwich filled with chorizo-potato hash, sour cream, lettuce and cheese. The white-bread rolls of some pambazos seem merely brushed with the defining mildly spicy red sauce. Hers is fully dipped in the sauce, then grilled for a crisp, rust-colored coat. Pancho’s dark, thick mole poblano, laboriously made from scratch and served over chicken, presents its seductive chocolate tones like a genteel calling card before the entourage of spices and chilies arrive and declare a party.—EL
83 Main Street, 732-537-0152; BYO.
Pancho’s Taqueria, Atlantic City
Fabiola Sanchez, who is Colombian, opened Pancho’s in 2006 “as a typical Mexican taqueria to serve Mexicans and Latinos who work at the casinos,” says her son, Joshua Cruz, 32. Together, they do all the cooking “in front of our customers,” he says. Even the tortillas are cooked to order. That is almost unheard of, because it takes time to roll out the masa dough and cut and griddle it. But the results are sublime. Last year, chef David Chang, emperor of the Momofuku empire, visited and, in a brief review on his Lucky Peach website, called Pancho’s “the best Mexican food on the East Coast.” Cruz was unaware of the rave until we called it to his attention. (Upon reading the review, his reaction was, “Wow!”) He allowed that he “noticed more Anglos came to my restaurant in 2016,” but attributed it to earlier attention from local media. Either way, he can certainly brag about Chang to his famous next-door neighbor, the White House Sub Shop. But he’s content to keep turning out terrific tacos topped with tender chunks of brisket or al pastor pork brightened with pineapple. And his enchiladas in a mudslide of mole poblano heady with cinnamon and clove are transcendent enough to soothe even the largest casino loss.—AE
2303 Arctic Avenue, 609-344-2062; BYO.
Parrilla La Nueva Fogata, Berlin
The Popoca-Martinez family didn’t have to look far when they decided to move their popular Berlin restaurant, Parrilla Fogata (“campfire grill”), to larger quarters. This spring, they found the perfect space in the same strip mall, just two storefronts away, and renamed it Parrilla La Nuevo Fogata. Bryan Popoca-Martinez runs the place with his siblings, Sergio, Alma and Joselyn, and their parents, Benito and Letitia, who came to Jersey in 2001 from Puebla and Mexico City, respectively. Though the restaurant is cash only, the clan’s ethos is expressed in its cheerful hospitality and in the quality and generosity of its food: tacos filled with hillocks of diced smoked pork; fried masa dough huaraches piled with toppings, overhanging their plates.
“Most of the restaurants around here are Tex-Mex,” says Bryan, “so it feels good to be able to provide the food that we grew up eating. It’s our duty to maintain our traditions.”—AE
25-27 W White Horse Pike, 856-767-5060; BYO.
Plaza Tapatia, Asbury Park
In the Western state of Jalisco, a lady is known as a Tapatia, and a beautiful long-tressed one in a sombrero is Plaza Tapatia’s symbol. Heroic men and women from Mexican history are hand painted in mythic style on the back of many of the dining-room chairs. Jalisco, where Tapatia owner German Garcia, 44, was born and raised, includes the city of Tequila, and you will have many of those agave liquors to choose from at your table or the bar. Jalisco’s signature dish, birria, a rich beef stew, is a monthly special. The menu, mostly Pueblan, includes excellent tamales; chunky guacamole; and carnitas and lengue tacos. Garcia began in 1998 with a small grocery, which he later turned into La Tapatia restaurant. Now the family’s domain covers half a block, encompassing a large grocery, bakery, liquor store, taqueria, and the showplace, Plaza Tapatia, twice expanded, most recently this year.—EL
707 Main Street, 732-776-7826.
Mi Pueblito, Kearny
“There are 365 ways to prepare a mole poblano in Mexico,” says Silvia Cazares, who opened this colorfully festooned, wood-beamed retreat in 2009 with her husband, Erasto. “The authentic mole poblano is sweet, but ours is not sweet, and it’s a bit spicy.” Mahogany-colored mole poblano is the signature mole of the state of Puebla, from where the Cazareses (like much of New Jersey’s Mexican population) emigrated. Some mole poblanos are thick as honey; Mi Pueblito’s is smoothly soupier, intoxicating in its aromas and depth of flavor. It fills the broad, round, ceramic bowl it’s served in, yet there is plenty of moist, flavor-saturated chicken to ladle out (and plenty of rice and beans on the side to soak up the complex sauce). Mi Pueblito also makes sumptuous, meat-packed tamales and another harder-to-find, form of corn heaven, picaditas—thick, handmade discs of masa dough with a variety of toppings. One of its simplest and most refreshing dishes is ensalada de aguacate con camerón, a pinwheel of avocado slices and lightly sautéed, gently spicy shrimp over lettuce, eager to be anointed with squeezes of fresh lime.—EL
412 Kearny Avenue, 201-991-3330; BYO.
Punto y Coma, New Brunswick
The walls are lime green above white tile, the tablecloths orange under clear plastic. The little storefront’s big windows brighten all three colors. Equally vibrant is the food, largely from Mexico City. Alberto Garcia and Estella Jiménez left there decades ago, raised their family here and opened Punto y Coma in 2005. Their son, José Garcia, 45, runs it now. He estimates that 90 percent of their customers are Latino.
“The locals like the tamales; we have a huge variety of flavors,” he says. “We make them fresh every day, of good size.”
The staff seems to speak no English, but the vibe is friendly. The popular sopa de res (beef soup) is enriched with pumpkin, cabbage, cilantro, epazote (a pungent herb), onions, garlic, carrots and squash. Another classic, enchiladas verdes—stuffed with shredded chicken in tangy green sauce, topped with shredded lettuce and squiggles of crema—exemplifies the generosity of Mexican cooking.—EL
179 French Street, 732-565-9857; BYO.
San Pedro Tierra, Bellmawr
Come hungry; the best-selling Fiesta Mexicana consists of bisteck asado (grilled steak), two chicken flautas, a quesadilla, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, cheese, and rice and beans, all for $11. Business partners Alvaro Bonilla and Nancy Tepoz, both from Puebla, pride themselves on regional specialties like mole poblano. But the must-try, not found on every Mexican menu, is huitlacoche quesadillas. Huitlacoche, a naturally occurring corn fungus, swells kernels and turns them black. One of its kinder nicknames is Mexican truffle, for its earthy umami. San Pedro Tierra mingles huitlacoche (fresh, not canned) with Oaxaca cheese in a folded tortilla that reaches the edges of the plate.
There is much more to enjoy on the huge menu, from tortas to tacos to enchiladas to a caldo de camarón (shrimp soup) that could feed a family. As if his dedication to huitlacoche weren’t proof enough, chef Hector Medina makes few concessions to timid eaters; the shrimp in that rich, crimson broth still wear their body armor and spiky pink helmets.—AE
115 S Black Horse Pike, 856-931-2072; BYO.
The Taco Shop, Rio Grande
There are two kinds of flights you can take at the Cape May Airport. Only one lifts your spirit while leaving your feet on the ground. That is the Taco Shop, piloted by Lucas Manteca, chef of the NJM Top 25 restaurant Red Store, and Maria Fox of Pickle Girl Pickles, both located in nearby Cape May Point. The design, by Manteca’s wife, Deanna Ebner, conjures up an authentic Mexican mercado, or market.
Everything is made in-house, from the corn tortillas to the spice rubs to the aguas frescas, the latter including the novel agua piña, with pineapple, cucumber, lime and honey. Instead of topping each taco meat with the standard chopped cilantro and raw onion, here each gets a tailor-made partner: pork shoulder is crowned with caramelized onions and pineapple; lamb barbacoa with pickled carrots and salsa borracha (“drunken”); carne asada (brisket) with cherry tomatoes, avocado, pickled red onions and creamy chimichurri. All the tacos (chicken, sausage, shrimp, mahi-mahi, vegetable) can be ordered as a burrito, quesadilla, rice bowl or salad bowl. Desserts, by patissier Michel Gras, who runs Manteca’s Little Store Bakery in Cape May, are varied and marvelous.—ED
1288 Hornet Road, 609-849-9045.
Taqueria Downtown, Jersey City
A taco truck that used to park across from City Hall drew such long lines that finally, in 2005, the owners leased a corner storefront a couple blocks south. Phillip and Andrea Barraza now also own a Taqueria catering company and a Taqueria in Manhattan, and will soon open a branch in Passaic.
For all that, the original establishment still rocks in style and substance. “I’m really into L.A. pop culture,” says Phillip, 49, a native Angeleno, explaining the Lakers and Dodgers paraphernalia and L.A. road signs on the walls. Janis Joplin, the Doors and the Beatles dominate the soundtrack.
For the palate, the attractions begin with the array of fresh-made salsas and the terrific tacos. When the couple first opened the restaurant, their Mexican-born mothers flew in armed with family recipes to help expand the menu. A Mexican beer would go great with all of it. The Barrazas give you 10 to choose from.—FS
236 Grove Street; 201-333-3220.
Taquitos Buenaventura, Long Branch
Buenaventura means “a good adventure,” in Spanish, “and that is what we want you to have at the restaurant,” says Gerardo Vazquez, chef/owner of this modestly furnished but pleasing eatery. When you sit down, you get one of the more generous setups around: a bowl of chips in the three colors of the Mexican flag, a generous cup of salsa verde, another of salsa rojos, and one of lime wedges. Though Taquitos means “little tacos,” the tacos are generously filled, and the meats in the al pastor and lengue—the ones we tried—were first-rate. Vazquez, 40, worked at restaurants in his native Puebla for 14 years before coming to the United States in 1996 and ascending from dishwasher to cook to founder and proprietor of Taquitos. His flan is notable, ditching the usual density for a subtly sweet, eggy lightness.—EL
10 Third Avenue, 732-222-6804; BYO.
Chef Adam Rose, a Nutley native whose father is Italian and mother is Polish, worked his way up in ambitious Jersey restaurants, then fell in love with Mexican food in Mexico. Filtered through a modern sensibility and dedicated study, “Villalobos,” he says, “is a collection of my travels.” (Read more about Villalobos in our review.)
6 S Fullerton Avenue, 973-337-6667; BYO.