Chef Minerva Torralba cooks in a space half the size of a typical suburban tract house kitchen, turning out platters of the most soulful foods this side of Puebla. Well, she’s from Puebla, so maybe we need to take that a little further and say she channels what the best home cooks in Puebla might prepare for their families and delivers it straight to the tables of Tornandez Restaurante Mexicano in Point Pleasant Borough.
Torralba, the owner of Tornandez, believes in hefty portions, which usually is a sign of weakness in a chef: It’s the “you-getta-lot” mentality that a groaning plate weighty with quantity stands in for a lack of quality.
You’ll see it straight away if you order a cemitas, a lumberjackian sandwich sporting a plus-size, sesame-flecked roll that can come with a variety of fillings. Try the marinated pork with pineapple, which is spliced with onions and avocado, a rasher of grated Oaxacan cheese and a dose of chipotle. There’s a layer of crisp, moist lettuce that gives it the freshness of a California burger, but it’s more complex and satisfying than that diner staple.
Similarly, the queso fundido is plentifully portioned. Rather than letting this standby become a one-dimensional glob, Torralba uses a mix of mild mozzarella and sharp Oaxacan cheeses and melts them over a pico de gallo whose tomatoes, onions and herbs are uniformly diced. Spoon into a warm flour tortilla and discover that every bite offers well-balanced flavors, a sure sign this chef takes pride in her craft.
Huaraches are handmade and thick—but not too thick. We get the quesillo, simple and to the point, and find it comes as two huaraches, each with its own sauce: a smoky, potent yet not burning red sauce, and a vibrant, spirited green sauce that’s a second cousin to Torralba’s peerless green salsa. Which is a verdant blend of tomatillos, jalapenos, cilantro and magic. Magic? Fact is, those are the only ingredients the chef will admit to putting in her green salsa. But it tastes like much more.
Do you love sopas? I love sopas. Here, they remind me of memelitas, those little free-form savory tarts essential to the repertoires of certain Oaxacan cooks. A trio is served forth here, with black beans lining the sturdy shells and finely grated cheese providing the topper. We get cubes of steak added to ours, and it’s good, but Torralba later tells us she likes them better with ground chorizo. Yup, I can see that.
But nothing could be better than the tinga de pollo tostadas, what with crispy thin tortillas cosseting a mound of coarsely shredded chicken marinated in chipotle that’s crowned with strips of iceberg, snips of tomato, cheese with a bite and generous squirts of crema. I don’t know how those featherweight tortillas, about as mighty as a potato chip, survive under the crush of the topping. Magic again, I guess.
Minerva Torralba, whose first name, she tells us, is that of the Roman “goddess of wisdom,” brings something otherworldly to the avocado, which she partners with extra-large shrimp cooked Mexican style. She conceived the dish as a way of giving her shrimp-and avocado-loving American customers a twofer. It’s an a-ha moment, eating this: Scoop up the creamy avocado from its shell, catching in the process a shrimp that’s slathered with silky, warm tomatoes, onions, chilies and herbs, and give it all a squirt of fresh lime juice before it goes down. Cleanse with a forkful of yellow rice, and repeat.
Repeat eating at Tornandez is wise. However, with summer crowds a-coming by month’s end to next-door neighbors Point Pleasant Beach and Bay Head, it’s a good bet beach-goers will find, and fill, this small BYO storefront. Good news, then, that Minerva Torralba is opening a second Tornandez by early summer—about 15 minutes inland, in Brick.
Tornandez Restaurante Mexicano, 2401 Bridge Avenue in Point Pleasant Borough. Open daily for lunch and dinner; BYO. 732-899-3939;tornandezmexicano.com. The second Tornandez will be located at 249 Chambers Bridge Road in Brick.Click here to leave a comment