The key to appreciating Villalobos—Montclair’s 81-seat temple of modern Mexican food—is taking chef Adam Rose at his word. “This isn’t a place to fill up on cheap tacos,” the genial 35-year-old says. “And I’m not pretending to be Mexican.”
That’s true, but it’s only half the story. Rose, who grew up in an Italian-Polish household in Nutley, combines a blue-collar work ethic with endless culinary curiosity. “I do a tremendous amount of due diligence and my absolute best to show respect for the cuisine,” he says. “Then I go with what my gut tells me.”
Almost without exception, Rose’s gut—and refined palate—have guided him well since he and his childhood buddy, VJ Moscaritola, opened Villalobos in August 2014. That applies to the urbane, industrial-hip décor, which doesn’t try to look Mexican, but lets the food provide the color and spark. And to the loyal staff they’ve hired, from the black-T-shirted servers eager to provide menu guidance to the animated crew in the open kitchen. The latter make the seats at the counter facing the kitchen some of the most engaging and entertaining in town.
For maximum Villalobos vibe (and fast seating without a rez), snag stools at that barlike counter. You’ll likely spot Chris Gallitelli, nicknamed Flacco for his lanky frame, pressing avocados through a wide-gap wire mesh for the house’s masterful guacamole. (The technique, says Rose, prevents thinning the buttery avocado the way mashing does.) Sous chef Maticia Coles might be tossing just-fried churros in a mix of sugar and hand-grated, fresh cinnamon. The ever-affable Moscaritola may slip you samples of items the kitchen is working on and ask for your feedback.
Center stage most every night will be Rose, plating Instagram-worthy antojitos (appetizers) and entrées that manage to be faithful, innovative and outrageously delicious at the same time.
Rose, a die-hard New York Rangers fan, is one of a tight-knit crew of Nutley-bred chefs making their mark in Jersey dining. They include Ryan DePersio of Fascino in Montclair and Battello and the Kitchen Step in Jersey City; Mike Carrino of Pig and Prince in Montclair; and Jamie Knott of the Saddle River Inn in Saddle River and Cellar 335 in Jersey City.
“Authentic Mexican food only entered the picture for me when I was working in restaurant kitchens,” says Rose. “Guys from Puebla and Oaxaca would bring in food from home I’d never seen before. I was blown away by how the flavors played off each other.”
A self-confessed culinary-school dropout, Rose started as a line cook, later helped Carrino open Passioné in Montclair, was chef de cuisine at Bin 14 in Hoboken, then scored the executive chef spot at Nico at NJPAC in Newark.
“It was a great job,” he says. “But after settling in, I began to miss the action of a smaller restaurant. I knew it was time to do something on my own.”
While still at NJPAC, Rose began an ongoing series of pilgrimages to Oaxaca, Puebla and Mexico City—each time delving into local cuisine. He and Moscaritola finally rented space off Bloomfield Avenue. “We both like wolves,” he says, “so we called it Villalobos, which means ‘house of the wolves.’”
His menu items are so appealing, you will want to wolf them down, but take your time. He offers three variations on his terrific cilantro-jalapeño-lime-spiked guacamole: with Jonah crab and pickled celery; ground pumpkin seed and roasted peanuts; or chunks of smoked slab bacon and crisped brussels sprouts. Scooped onto freshly fried chips or folded into one of the 400-to-500 white-corn tortillas the staff hand presses daily, each concoction is heady.
Rose’s riff on esquites, Mexican street corn, is served off the cob for graceful eating. It’s sprinkled with crumbled cotija cheese, Maggi-spiked mayo and chipotle spice, as it should be. The sparkling shrimp-and-black-bass ceviche, with its crunchy bits of celery, velvety cubes of avocado, and wallops of fresh Meyer lemon and tomato mojo, becomes a veritable circus for the mouth. Vegetarian tostadas are equally winning, the crisp corn disks crowned with scratch-made black beans, queso fresco, sassy pickled red onions and an avocado salsa verde.
And then there are tacos. At six bucks a pop, these four-bite gems pin the high-end of the taco price range. But each is a considered bundle, pitting fat against acid, crunchy against creamy, heat against sweet. For carnitas, Rose uses Berkshire pork belly instead of the more customary pork shoulder, braises the meat overnight in cola as tradition dictates, and folds it into a tortilla with roasted corn and cotija cheese.
Crisp nuggets of beer-battered cod nestle in tortillas with cabbage slaw, bright lime crema and a jolt of serrano. Rose’s tender, vinegar-braised lengue (beef tongue) tacos with smoky chipotle-pistachio salsa can win over even the squeamish. He took his hugely popular grilled-scallop tacos off the menu when prices spiked in 2016. “But,” he says, “we keep it as a silent option for those in the know”—a group that now includes you.
Early on, entrées at Villalobos generally weren’t interesting enough to sacrifice tacos for. But Rose’s diligence has paid off, and the five current entrées are worthy. Big enough to share are the crisp-skinned black-bass fillet on black beans and corn in poblano salsa beurre blanc; and the Goffle Road Farm heritage chicken, which Rose sous vides in (gasp!) achiote-infused chicken fat, soaks in buttermilk, dredges in a cornmeal-cornstarch-flour mix, and flash fries to crackling-crisp bliss.
Aces, too, are the vegetarian enchiladas, with their lacinato-kale and sweet-potato filling, herbacious green mole, sprinkling of peanuts, and cheeky garnish of fried kale “chicharrons.”
Only the bowl of ancho-coriander-crusted baby back ribs with chunks of grilled pineapple fell a tad short. The ribs are tasty and meaty, if a bit fatty for some, with not enough sauce to moisten them up. Absent Rose putting more sauce in the bowl (hint), the work-around is to combine a bite of meat with a bite of pineapple for a balanced, juicy mouthful.
Many dishes come paired with specific salsas or sauces. Of the seven supplementary salsas offered for $2 each, the one fully worth the expense is the smoky/silky chipotle honey.
No matter. Rose’s one dessert makes amends: hot churros with bittersweet Mexican chocolate ganache. “It’s not traditional,” he admits, “but I use a pâte à choux dough because I think it just tastes better.”
One dense, delicious bite tells you he’s still right to trust his gut.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Central American - Mexican
Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$13; tacos, $6; entrées, $24-$29; dessert, $10.
Ambience:Minimalist decor, casual and welcoming vibe.
Service:Friendly and helpful; distracted when busy.