Professionally speaking, the best thing that ever happened to Marianne Cuneo-Powell might have been 18-year-old Anna Ramos poking her nose into the kitchen of Cuneo-Powell’s BYO, A Little Café, and asking for a job. That Cuneo-Powell hired Ramos as a cook that day in 1999 also might be the best thing that ever happened to Ramos. But it was probably not obvious to either woman at the time.
Ramos had just emigrated from her hometown of San Lucas in Southern Mexico. Under the tutelage of Cuneo-Powell, a classically trained French chef, Ramos eventually became sous chef of A Little Café. But the market crash of 2008 and the subsequent recession, took a heavy toll on the cafe’s business. By last February, Cuneo-Powell was reeling. “With the economy, I just wasn’t making it,” she told me after my visits.
At that point, Ramos, who had learned Mexican cooking from her mother in San Lucas, suggested they turn the café into a Mexican restaurant that would attract the Voorhees area’s burgeoning Mexican population.
“It was either that, or close completely,” Cuneo-Powell told me.
The women temporarily closed the café, repainted it themselves in bright citrus tones, and reopened two months later as El Mariachi San Lucas. The initial results were disappointing. On my first visit last spring, guacamole was undersalted and over-puréed. The Mariachi salad (mango, strawberries, apples and grapes over greens in a tequila-mango dressing) was so sweet it should have been called a dessert. Ramos’s mother sent the women a supply of dark mole poblano from San Lucas, but it couldn’t save an overcooked duck breast with rubbery skin.
Returning in May, I found a restaurant in tune with the catchy traditional music it’s named for. The servers, all new, were friendly and adept at explaining the food in English. “Anna wanted to work with people who understood her cuisine,” said Cuneo-Powell, 48, now co-owner with Ramos, but no longer cooking.
Ramos, the chef, was serving pozole—a classic Mexican hominy stew—pungent with oregano and bay leaf. Her excellent chilaquiles, crisp corn tortillas simmered in salsa verde till soft, were topped with crema, cotija cheese and seared chicken breast cut in strips.
Ramos makes a terrific dish of nachos layered so that each chip touches one of the several components: refried beans, pico de gallo, avocado, queso fresco, sour cream and Oaxaca cheese. Smoky guajillo salsa gave crisp fried calamari a Latino accent. In a tender quesadilla, fresh mint countered the intense umami of huitlacoche (a naturally occurring corn fungus regarded as a delicacy in Mexico). Ramos brightened a simple crab salad with jalapeño, cilantro and lime. She even redeemed her guacamole with proper seasoning and thicker, chunkier texture.
Asked about her cooking, the soft-spoken Ramos, 33, told me, “It’s a little bit of my mom’s recipes, a little bit of what I learned from Marianne and a little bit of my own.”
Shrimp enchiladas with guajillo salsa had much more flavor than the chicken enchiladas with salsa verde. The smoky guajillo salsa enriched pan-roasted chicken San Lucas. Chicken Mexicano, topped with crabmeat and Oaxaca cheese, was dressed in a creamy puréed red salsa that combined the elegant texture of béchamel with the pep of chile de arbol—a successful mingling of Ramos and Cuneo-Powell’s contrasting backgrounds.
Molcajete, on the other hand, is all Mexican. Served in a blazing-hot volcanic rock bowl, it came to the table bubbling, a perfectly cooked stew of chicken, steak, pork, shrimp, salsa verde, nopales (strips of roasted cactus paddle), queso fresco and avocado. The bowl comes with house-made soft corn tortillas for do-it-yourself tacos.
Desserts are so good, you won’t want to share them. Tequila replaces rum in an awesome bananas Foster with strawberries. But the moist, delicious, white-chocolate bread pudding and the dense brownie sundae are pure stars-and-stripes-forever.
Anxious not to alienate mainstream customers, the restaurant lets you substitute mashed potatoes for rice and beans on any entrée. It’s an unfortunate concession, and possibly unnecessary. According to Cuneo-Powell, a new cadre of repeat customers is developing. Personally, I doubt they’re the mashed potatoes kind. “Every week,” she said, “is getting stronger.”