During five years working at the Five West Pub in North Cape May, Ruben Nunez kept his eye on the strip mall across Bayshore Road. It had, among other things, an Italian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a dog groomer, a yarn shop, a tattoo parlor, a salon and a café. When the café moved out, Nunez and his wife, Dalila, pounced.
“There wasn’t any Mexican food around here,” Nunez explains. “And it was a new test to try.” They opened El Pueblo Taqueria in May 2017.
Nunez, 31, is from Oaxaca, one of the Mexican states most esteemed for its food. He came to the Cape May area with his family 24 years ago.
His mother, Lucia, worked at Carney’s on Beach Avenue in Cape May. “We started working young, basically just to spend time with our mom,” he says. “We would help her wash dishes when me and my brother were 10 years old. Ever since then, we just stayed in kitchens.”
El Pueblo is his first as an owner. It’s a counter-service restaurant with sunny mango walls, 12 tables that can be pushed together for larger groups, and a chalkboard menu of tacos, tortas, quesadillas and burritos. “It’s what we like to eat and what I would order on a regular basis if there was a Mexican restaurant near my house,” Nunez says. “Working as a chef, you never have time to enjoy your own prepared meals, so we created something homemade, but served a little faster.”
Buzz began building soon after El Pueblo opened, and every time I visited, the place has been busier (but the tables turn quickly). I’ve spent many summers on the Southern Shore, eating widely, and in my experience, El Pueblo makes the best Mexican food between Atlantic City and Cape May.
I’ve tried most of the tacos—smoky, crumbled chorizo sausage; sweet-and-sour al pastor, the spit-roasted pork shaved like shwarma; crisp nuggets of pork carnitas; marinated chicken, never overcooked. I think they’re even tastier than the wonderful ones at the celebrated Pancho’s Taqueria in Atlantic City.
It doesn’t hurt that the tacos are served four per order, rather than the usual three, and are generously stuffed. Nunez makes his own corn tortillas and serves them warm and fragrant.
The tortillas are cut and fried into thick chips that taste profoundly of corn and are perfect for scooping up the chunky guacamole and fire-engine-red pico de gallo. The chips are even better as Pueblo Nachos, smothered in meat, quesillo, tomatoes, black beans, guacamole, sour cream, pickled jalapeños and carrots. The chips are equally fine as chilaquiles, simmered in sharp, herbaceous salsa verde or voluptuous Oaxacan red mole and topped with a fried egg and queso fresco.
You need to open your jaws like a great white shark to encompass the torta milanesa, a stack of crisp chicken cutlet, lettuce, tomato, avocado, quesillo, onion, pickled jalapeños and refried beans on a plush, mayo-slicked bun. Coctel de camarones is a goblet overflowing with shrimp in tangy red sauce. Quesadillas, grilled till golden, come on 12-inch flour tortillas packed with cheese and choice of meat.
The house-made aguas frescas are terrific beverages. Creamy horchata with cinnamon notes and hibiscus-infused jamaica are always available, while summer brings seasonal flavors like watermelon and cantaloupe. Dalila makes the beverages as well as the two dreamy desserts—a superb tres leches cake with strawberries, and chocoflan, a mash-up of caramel flan and chocolate cake. Alternatively, you can walk five doors down to Antojos, the Mexican-style ice cream shop Nunez’s brother, Jehovanny, opened this summer.
Nunez is fielding franchise offers, but wants to keep everything in-house for now. A second location, a food truck, catering—all are on the table for a chef who, though still young, has been building toward this moment since he was a boy.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $5-$8; entrées, $7.50-$10; desserts, $3.50-$4.50
Ambience:Counter service, chalkboard menu