March 1, 2013

Authentic Mexican restaurants are sprouting up all over the Garden State, many in unexpected places. More than 200,000 New Jersey residents claimed Mexican ancestry in the 2010 Census, the second-largest Hispanic ethnic group after Puerto Rican. Ten percent of them live in Monmouth County. And two towns, in particular, have become enclaves for outstanding Mexican cuisine.

Tacos al Pastor @ La Valentina – Long Branch, NJ

Bahia de Acapulco – Freehold, NJ

Freehold, once known more for being a signpost on the back roads to the Shore and the hometown of Bruce Springsteen, today boasts a half-dozen Mexican restaurants. There are a couple of Tex- Mex places on Main Street that attract a mixed crowd, including many non-Latinos. But just around the corner, on the side streets, are the no-frills storefronts serving true Mexican comfort food, mostly to the local Mexican-American community. La Nueva Placita is a small market with a food counter serving tacos, tortas (sandwiches), sopes, tamales and tlayudas (“Mexican pizzas”), among other traditional Mexican food.

El Oaxaqueno – Long Branch, NJ

The menu at Fonda Bahia de Acapulco on South Street in Freehold emphasizes home-style Mexican cooking. Miguel Gonzáles, who cooks there, says most of the customers hail from the Mexican states of Puebla, famous for its mole poblano, and Oaxaca, where chicken is served with the even darker mole negro. “Mexicans will order different tacos, fish dishes, and specialties like the sombrero ranchero—grilled beef, chicken, cactus, peppers and onions served in a stone molcajete with queso fresco,” says Gonzáles. “Non-Mexicans tend to order the burritos and enchiladas.” Oaxacan tlayudas—a large, thin, fried tortilla covered with beans, meat, pork lard, cabbage, cheese and avocado—are on the menu at La Nueva Placita, a small market with a food counter next to the train tracks on Throckmorton Street.

El Burrito de Pollo @ El Oaxaqueno – Long Branch, NJ

Head east from Freehold on Routes 18 and 36 to Long Branch, birthplace of both Dorothy Parker and Springsteen, and you will find one of the highest concentrations of family-runMexican restaurants in New Jersey. Once the summer seaside retreat of U.S. presidents, downtown Long Branch today is a year-round destination for eating hearty comida auténtica at one of a dozen Mexican places along Broadway. Order the shrimp tacos at Acapulqueños Mexican Grill, a comfortable spot owned by Acapulco natives.


Chicharrones @ La Valentina – Long Branch, NJ

El Oaxaqueño is one of the best Mexican spots in town. As soon as you walk in, you’ll note the telltale signs of a good ethnic restaurant: a huge handpainted mural along one wall, television in the native tongue of the proprietors, and unlabeled spicy condiments on the table. The dining room has about a dozen tables and does a bustling takeout business from the front counter, where pollos rostizados (rotisserie chickens) turn bronze and crispy. Service is attentive, friendly and more or less bilingual, though knowing some Spanish will certainly help. A basket of homemade tortilla chips quickly arrives to accompany the spicy salsas, a red mole and a green tomatillo. On one visit, my daughter ordered a chicken burrito, filled with shreds of that slowroasted chicken, which could have fed a small family. Try the chicken with mole Oaxaqueño, a powerful, spicy and complex sauce colored so red it’s almost black. Sample the traditional molcajete Oaxaqueño as well, washing it down with a cane sugar Mexican soda (toronja—grapefruit—is my favorite flavor), or a licuado— fruit shake.

La Valentina – Long Branch, NJ

For some of the best Mexican tacos anywhere in New Jersey, do not miss Taquería La Valentina, a food counter and café tucked into the back of a grocery store on Broadway. Enter through the narrow aisles stacked high with Mexican goods under piñatas hanging from the ceiling, or through the back entrance from the parking lot. Freshly made tortillas have an unmatched toasted corn flavor and chewy grilled texture, and La Valentina’s are made right there behind the counter. Tacos are available with 13 different fillings, from lengua (beef tongue) to barbacoa de chivo (shredded barbecued goat) to tripa (tripe), and everything in between. The taco al pastor (marinated pork) I ordered was served in tasty soft tortillas with chopped onion, pineapple and cilantro, accompanied by radish slices, a roasted scallion and whole hot pepper on the side. Squirt some lime juice over it all and it is the perfect Mexican mouthful—or three. Ana Ochoa, the enthusiastic proprietor from Jalisco, added the Taquería to the grocery two years ago. While a success with her Mexican customers, she says the food counter gets few non-Mexican customers. “We would welcome them to try our food,” she adds in Spanish, smiling broadly.

Acapulqueños Mexican Grill – Long Branch, NJ

Entrepreneurs abound in New Jersey’s family-owned Mexican restaurants. Down the street from El Oaxaqueño, brothers Giddel and Fredy Gonzáles Estrada have opened Rokamar Restaurant, taking over the space from another Mexican eatery. The brothers had worked in other New JerseyMexican restaurants while saving money to open their own. After three years looking for the right opportunity, they chose to invest in the Long Branch location. According to Giddel, “There’s still room in Long Branch for new places. It’s a nice town with a large Mexican community.”

Shrimp Tacos @ Acapulquenos Mexican Grill – Long Branch, NJ

As in Freehold, the best Mexican food in Long Branch isn’t chain restaurant “Mexican” where the menu has been diluted for perceived North American tastes. Instead, in most of these restaurants at least two-thirds of the customers are Mexican. Some dishes on the menu—tacos de cuerito (pork-skin tacos) or chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips smothered in red or green mole)—may be unfamiliar to non- Mexicans. Most restaurants are simple establishments where you can eat a lot for a fair price: three overflowing tacos cost around six dollars. While English is often the second language, menus include English translations and most servers speak some English. But a language barrier won’t keep you from enjoying some of New Jersey’s most delicious—and authentic—Mexican food.

Miguel Gonzáles of Freehold’s Fonda Bahia de Acapulco is from Mexico City, so I asked him where to find typical Mexico City food in New Jersey. He has yet to find a spot for carne suadero tacos or chicharron prensado (pressed pork rinds), two staples of the Mexican capital, but he’s heard of a Lakewood food truck serving some Mexico City items. Time to break out the map and head to Ocean County.

An original version of this post appeared as “Edible Escape: Comida Mexicana al Gusto” in Edible Jersey Magazine (Winter 2012-2013).