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[Tacos barbacoa at La Placita.]
[Tacos barbacoa at La Placita.]
Robert Siestema

Blitzing Through New Jersey in Search of the State's Best Mexican Food

Eater critic Robert Sietsema hits the road on a two-day odyssey through the Garden State.

For years we’ve been hearing rumors of great Mexican food to be found in New Jersey, without having experienced much of it firsthand. Trips over the last decade to New Brunswick – principally known as the seat of Rutgers University – proved that there was lots of it there, and no less a food authority than David Chang announced last year that the best tacos on the East Coast came from a hole-in-the-wall in Atlantic City. Certainly, New Jersey’s prominence as an agricultural and industrial center means that plenty of Mexican immigrants must be living there, but the only recent statistic to be found, from the Migration Policy Institute, suggests that new Mexican-Americans accounted for 16.4 percent of New Jersey’s population growth between 2000 and 2008. That’s a heck of a lot.

So on a recent weekend two friends and I set out on a two-day Mexican food binge in the Garden State. We spent weeks beforehand stalking the Internet, making lists of promising-sounding places based on evocative names and whatever menus could be unearthed. Our final list contained over 150 delis and restaurants. What we especially hoped to find were Mexican regional specialties that are unobtainable in New York, and to get an idea of where the greatest concentrations of south-of-the-border food were to be found. In the process we expected to gauge its excellence compared to our own Mexican food here in the city; we wouldn’t pull our punches as far as assessments went.

Three of us departed on a Sunday, figuring that’s when the most families would be eating out, and the restaurants would be at their best. As we sped at 10 a.m. out of the mouth of the Holland Tunnel in a rental car, there was a light breeze blowing from the west and a clear blue sky devoid of clouds, auguring good weather for our expedition. And we soon discovered another advantage of starting on a Sunday morning: light traffic.

New Brunswick

Moules, house harissa, Brussels sprouts, spaghetti squash, celery, fennel, herbs.

Our first destination was New Brunswick, 40 miles southwest of Manhattan, where we knew we’d find Mexican restaurants – but little did we know how many as we took the turnpike exit and motored along the free flowing and surprisingly unpolluted-looking Raritan River. We took the Commerce Street exit, just south of the campus.

The majority of the eight restaurants we spotted were clustered north and south of a railroad overpass in a mixed industrial and residential neighborhood that dated from the 30s and 40s, arrayed along three thoroughfares: Drift Street, Handy Street, and French Street. We pulled up in front of Costa Chica, a large and semi-fancy place with a bilingual menu and furniture colorfully painted with the restaurant’s logo and Mexican landscapes. We excitedly noted several Oaxacan dishes on the vast menu, and indeed the waitress of this matriarchally run spot told us one of the owners was from Oaxaca, and that the place was 14 years old.

We ordered a tlayuda ($11.50), sometimes known as a Oaxacan pizza. It arrived smeared with refried black beans, paved with the dried beef called cecina, ribboned with rubbery white Oaxacan cheese, squirted with crema, dotted with jalapeños, and somewhat oddly heaped with iceberg lettuce. It was mounted on its big, thin corn cracker with no stinting on the salty meat. "Why don’t they make this in New York," one of my friends exclaimed, breaking off another piece with her fingers, "it’s like reconstructed nachos and it might be the world’s greatest bar snack!"

We also enjoyed a bowl of white pork pozole, a rich soup usually served on weekends back in Mexico. It came with sliced avocado, a heap of lime wedges, chopped onions and jalapeños, and a stack of crunchy fried tortillas. We’d asked for the red (and hence much spicier) version, but the cook was apparently out of it. After paying the bill, our party darted across busy Handy Street to a Mexican grocery in a rather modern appearing structure called La Placita. Inside, we were surprised to find a small lunch counter with seating that looked out the window at Costa Chica, and a relatively brief chalkboard menu.

[A tlayuda at Costa Chica.]

Oaxacan food was again the specialty, and you could get a tlayuda topped with your choice of meat, though here it arrived folded over double like a gigantic cracker sandwich, presumably for easier eating. This was one of several tlayuda styles we were to stumble on in New Jersey on our trip. We opted instead for barbacoa tacos, which the waitress assured us were made from goat rather than lamb or beef, three for $8.50. When they arrived they were delectably overstuffed, perhaps the best barbacoa I’ve had in this country. I can still taste them.

We next ventured north of the railroad overpass to French Street, and found it mobbed with Mexican businesses in a series of detached, low-rise storefronts and ground-floor businesses located in houses. There was a bodega with live herbs and house plants trundled out front under a thatched umbrella, a zapateria, a pair of hair salons, and two restaurants. The one named Cinco de Mayo (after a Mexican-American holiday) mainly peddled mind-bogglingly big burritos in a jovial premises that might have once been an auto parts store, with cartoon mural come-ons painted all over the façade and the windows.

We decided to order two burritos off of a menu that offered around 25, including the Rutgers (rice and beans, spicy sauce, onions, and mozzarella, plus your choice of meat), Chipotle (with chipotle sauce and a fried egg on top), and the deep-fried Norteno. We picked the Oaxaqueno, which came smothered in mole negro, squirted with crema, and decorated with red radishes. Of course, a burrito is a Mexican-American invention, so sending it back to a place like Oaxaca that never had it in the first place is an act of pure invention, what linguists would call a back construction. Our other choice was the so-called fat burrito ($6.50), which arrived overstuffed with the usual fillings, plus French fries inside the burrito! The menu was as gargantuan as the burritos, including over 100 other dishes, many of them tinkered versions of Mexican and Mexican-American standards.

[The dining room at Punto. Y Coma]

Reeling from three meals so far, we wandered into a bodega called La Oaxaquena, which had an amazing display of dried herbs and chiles, many of which we’d never encountered before. Asking the counter gal where the best tamales in town were, she gestured a few doors down to a restaurant carved out of a house called Punto. Y Coma, (note carefully punctuated name). There was a small dining room on the ground floor and a narrow green stairway hung with Mexican flags leading to an upstairs dining room adjacent to the kitchen. Space was tight and the place was filled with happy families dining, so we carried out and ate on a newspaper box just outside the restaurant. There were four wonderful tamales, including one wrapped in a banana leaf, Oaxacan style and filled with chileajo de puerco, and another that had pepper strips, tomato sauce, and Oaxacan cheese. "This tastes positively Italian," one of my friends observed.

We eyeballed a couple of other Mexican restaurants in New Brunswick, but decided not to stop due to having already eaten too much. One thing’s for sure: New Brunswick offers tons of Oaxacan food, and it’s worth anyone’s while to go there specifically for the purpose of eating it.

Keyport

All our researches indicated that Mexican restaurants in New Jersey often come in clusters. Radiating from the seaside region known as the Amboys several towns seemed promising. Perth Amboy was one, where the Raritan River empties into Raritan Bay; Red Bank, at the head of the Navesink River, was another; and Freehold — hometown of Bruce Springsteen — was a third. Just around the corner going southeast from Perth Amboy on the way to Atlantic Highlands and Sandy Hook were the working class towns of Keyport and Keansburg. We picked Keyport and started combing the older parts of town based on a couple of leads, one for a place with the charming name of Tacos No Problem. It and another place looked permanently closed, the owners apparently having moved on, so we asked in a bodega on East Front Street and were told about a place on Broad Street called Los Corrales. When we got there, the menu wasn’t very exciting — partly Mexican-American standards with a small range of fillings — so we decided to cut our losses and move on. Whatever Mexican food scene once enlivened Keyport is now mainly gone.

Long Branch

[La Valentina.]

Driving south from Atlantic Highlands down the Jersey Shore you first encounter a couple of swanky beachside communities with new post-Sandy seawalls that prevent you from seeing the Ocean and also keep the riffraff off the private beaches. Eventually you run into rundown Long Branch, the Jersey Shore’s most working-class community. It boasts a picturesque downtown that runs along Broadway perpendicular to the seashore, as if turning its back on the beach, lined with two-story buildings, among them theaters and abandoned department stores that look something like a dusty Western town in a movie.

One pair of buildings that isn’t abandoned is the thriving La Valentina, a combination restaurant, party store, bodega, and haberdashery specializing in cowboy hats and pearly button shirts. We settled into one of two dining rooms in the rear, painted earthy shades of red and overhung with Spanish tiles. Through a series of arches we could see the kitchen, and the room was decorated with folk paintings and colorful bas reliefs of kitchen utensils and vessels. The waitress told us the place had been around for seven years ("We just opened a second dining room," she noted enthusiastically) and the owners were from Jalisco, "through we have customers from all over Mexico living around here."

We naturally wanted another tlayuda, and got one, this time heavy on the crumbled spicy chorizo. Like the previous example the crust had been rubbed with refried beans before the thing was assembled, softening it somewhat. This one was lower on cheese, had more avocado, and used shredded cabbage, which is apparently more typical than lettuce. Carefully studying the chalkboard specials, we picked aguachile ($13), a shrimp cocktail native to Sinaloa that comes in a beer schooner. The raw shellfish was deposited in a solution of lime juice and serrano chiles along with cubes of cucumber. Avocado, soda crackers, and cucumbers rubbed with chile salt were provided on the side. This was certainly one of the most exciting things we tasted on our trip and we slurped it down in a flash.

[Taquitos Buenaventura]

It turns out that, like New Brunswick, Long Branch is one of those Jersey towns that has a large concentration of Mexican restaurants in a single locale. Including both Broadway and its side streets we counted eight restaurants, running in magnitude from closet-size taquerias to large, full-blow, well-decorated restaurants. Wandering around the streets, which were lively with strolling couples and kids on skateboards, the place began to seem like a Mexican town. We tried a rather indifferent memela — a hand-patted, oblong masa flatbread stuffed with refried beans and topped with pulled suadero (brisket) — at Taquitos Buenaventura, which had a lavish painted sign in the window that said Fresh Guacamole; and then finished up with an excellent wedge of flan at El Oaxaqueño, which specializes in rotisserie chickens.

Atlantic City

[Panchos.]

Sated with so much delicious Mexican food and finding it already late afternoon, we decided to jump on the Garden State Parkway and zoom down to our overnight destination, bypassing promising-sounding restaurants in Asbury Park and Toms River. We moved into a motel near the Boardwalk, got a few airline bottles of rum and tequila, and doctored some Slurpees for a pre-prandial stroll on the boardwalk and through the casinos. It being a Sunday evening in the post-summer season, the place was pleasantly dead, but we were really just burning off some energy prior to eating a last supper of the day.

While Atlantic City is loaded with Vietnamese restaurants, there was only one Mexican spot we could find. Named Pancho’s Mexican Taqueria, it sits next to the neon-encrusted White House Sub Shop, one of AC’s truly great eateries, located on Arctic Avenue in the Ducktown neighborhood. Pancho’s is unprepossessing, an ancient repurposed lunch counter with a few tables and an unpromisingly succinct menu. Yet, the place makes its own tortillas for tacos with nine potential fillings, including lengua, chivo, and tripas. Tacos came in threes ($12) and you could pick as many as two fillings. We chose lengua and chivo as well as a double-tortilla-style cheese quesadilla. As we downed the tacos — which were quite wonderful — we googled Pancho’s and discovered it was the place David Chang had raved about.

Vineland

[Caldo de cameron at El Michoacáno.]

The next morning bright and early we began another leg of our trip, diving deep into the southern agricultural heartland of New Jersey, an area isolated by the stunted Pine Barrens to the north and Delaware Bay to the west and south. We made our way across a densely wooded landscape, at first on the toll road to Philadelphia, soon diverging onto much smaller roads, with the objective of Vineland, the largest city in the region. We expected to find there a different type of Mexican restaurant, one aimed at agricultural workers, and we weren’t disappointed.

Strangely, Vineland is also the largest city in New Jersey — in terms of sheer area, comprising 69,000 square miles, with a population of only 61,000. A railroad track runs down the center of town, and a glance in any direction reveals its farm-oriented underpinnings. Driving toward our dining destination, we passed several modern tiendas Mexicanas, or Mexican supermarkets, and a brand-new bodega called, La Bodega. We pulled up on a broad grassy boulevard that ran on either side of the railroad tracks at a restaurant called El Michoacano, name-checking Michoacán, a state in southwest Mexico sandwiched between Jalisco and Guerrero running down to the Pacific Ocean.

A single carnitas taco came so extravagantly heaped with meat that it would have made a whole meal by itself.

The décor was sparse (only a few sombreros and a cartoon Mr. Taco), the walls colorful, the tables well-spaced, as the Pope looked down from the TV, blessing the entire scene. The culinary characteristics of Michoacán were reflected in the enchiladas verdes we ordered, which came smothered in a tart tomatillo sauce and heaped with the state’s salty grated cotija cheese. What’s more, the count of enchiladas was six, the largest serving we’d ever laid eyes on. A real farmer’s day-ending tuck-in! A single carnitas taco came so extravagantly heaped with meat that it would have made a whole meal by itself. Michoacán is often credited with inventing carnitas and this version showed evident pride in the dish.

But even more impressive was a weekend special that we were lucky was still on hand this Monday morning: caldo de camaron, a bowlful of head-on shrimp in a brick-red broth, to which we added chopped cilantro and onions. In the depths were potatoes and carrots; it was one of the most delicious things we ate on the trip. Leaving the heads on had fortified the broth immeasurably with the crustacean’s head fat, and contributed to the beautiful color, too.

Bridgeton

[Tacos bravos and its chilaquiles (bottom left) and sope (right).]

On the way through the sprawling but sparse city of Vineland, famous for its surrounding wineries and cranberry bogs, we stopped in at a Mexican supermarket which had a taqueria in the rear, but were frustrated in our attempts to get another meal by an ongoing health department inspection. "We won’t be open for another 30 minutes," the shopkeeper lamented. Accordingly, we headed for our next destination of Bridgeton, a much older town that arose out of settlements of colonial vintage situated on the Cohansey River, which wends its way through swampland to Delaware Bay.

Bridgeton lies in an area that has a warm microclimate, where plantations flourished prior to the Civil War. It might as well have been the Deep South. In the 19th century, the town was also an industrial center with the main industries being glass factories and metal and machine works. Nowadays the town and surrounding area contribute many vendors to New York’s greenmarkets, and the area’s lush farmland produces vast quantities of corn, squash, and Jersey tomatoes, often maturing far in advance of those offered by vendors from other parts of the state. According to Wikipedia, the area is home to many Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants; some of the former speak Zapoteco rather than Spanish, a Mesoamerican language common to Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, and Veracruz.

On the north side of town we encountered a neighborhood with gang symbols tagged on abandoned houses on our way to Tacos Bravos, the most promising of three restaurants, two tequila bars, and one grocery store we’d uncovered. As we pulled up a sigh of delight went up, since the restaurant occupied a former drive-in restaurant. We parked on the gravel and scurried inside. The wide and shallow front of the low building had been outfitted with four-tops covered with plastic tablecloths, and a line of windows looked into the kitchen area, which was way too big for an establishment of this scope. Had it once been an A & W Root Beer? A Virgin of Guadeloupe graced the inside front cover of the menu.

We still craved a conventional breakfast. There had been no chilaquiles or huevos rancheros at El Michoacán in Vineland, so we ordered them here ($8). It turned out to be the largest serving we’d ever seen, sluiced with salsa verde so that the chips were pleasantly damp, and snowed with shredded white cheese; yellow rice and refried beans accompanied and three fried eggs cooked hard rested on top. One friend complained, "I like it better when the egg is cooked soft and runny so it goes all over the chilaquiles." We also copped a platter of three sopes with carne enchilada on top. They weren’t quite as exciting, but had been ably turned out and attractively presented.

Trenton

[The guacamole at Taqueria El Mariachi]

We’d done Mexican restaurants along the seashore and delved into farming country, now we set out for more urban settings. Our next destination was Trenton, the state’s capital, located on the Delaware River 70 miles to the north. It’s known as a tough and hardscrabble town. We arrived around 1 p.m., and feeling peckish drove straight to the place we’d scouted, Taqueria El Mariachi. Its flat, narrow façade was painted a sickly shade of green and occupied one of a string of storefronts in a brick residential building with some impressive arched windows and terra cotta bas reliefs up above. Everything below the second floor, though, looked trashy.

The interior was nicely kept up, with a mountain landscape occupying one wall, with dark green booths under that and a kitchen in back. It turned out to be a combination Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant, a combo not uncommon here, especially in neighborhoods with a mixed Latin population. The chips were thick and freshly fried, and the guac we ordered especially dope. It was basically just smashed avocados with little discernible lime or onion and no cilantro. Refreshing! We ordered a chile relleno and got quite a surprise. The fresh poblano chile underneath was red instead of green, and bulging with a dense meat filling something like picadillo, in the usual plain red tomato sauce. It tasted great despite the extreme variation from what we were used to. Mayo potato salad came curiously on the side, along with the usual rice and beans.

We threw caution to the winds and ordered some pupusas, freshly made, humongous, and stuffed with loroco-flavored cheese, which had browned as it oozed out of the masa wrapper on the flat top. The curtido that usually accompanies was really just a cabbage slaw without the usual purple beet coloring; no hot sauce was provided. Our meal was pleasant at El Mariachi, but the food seemed more like a pan-Hispanic hybrid. After finishing up, we drove around a few neighborhoods and didn’t find any more Mexican places, though we did manage to stumble on some locales featured in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum detective novels. And on an excellent ice cream joint, Vincent’s, which made its own ice cream and water ices, which formed a refreshing counterpoint to our meal. (Totally dug the Grape Nuts and mint chocolate chip flavors!)

Bloomfield

[Los Guerros and its torta (left) and gringa (right)]

We’d come to the conclusion based on empirical evidence (few restaurants, no bodegas) that there weren’t many Mexicans living in Trenton. Maybe Chris Christie scared them away. So we made quick work of the capital and headed east across the state to the suburbs north of Newark. In Bloomfield, New Jersey, just east of Montclair, we had found three places that seemed promising. One named El Matador was berthed in a ramshackle wooden frame house on a hidden access road right next to the Garden State Expressway. Despite its picturesque qualities we rejected it as too gringo-ized and headed instead toward downtown Bloomfield and a place called Los Gueros ("The Blonds"). It was situated in a tiny, streamlined, well-worn diner from the 40s pressed up against the busy street with a parking lot in back that could accommodate only three cars.

The previous name was still to be seen on the front: Jay’s Grill. We went inside to find a jovial scene with a twirling al pastor cylinder of pork as its central focus. Several diners sat along the counter and at a shelf in the front window happily eating tacos and burritos. We scored a quartet of al pastor tacos ($6) and they were just better than average. The low price ($6) was because they came mounted on miniature tortillas, an urban phenomenon traceable, perhaps, to the fact that the owners are from Mexico City. We also got a gringa (doubled flour tortilla with cheese and chicken between the layers) and a mini torta milanesa ($3), that was compact but extremely delicious.

Here was Mexican food a little more like what we were accustomed to in New York, served at rock bottom prices in a stylish setting. And there were plenty more things to explore on the menu, including tacos placeros (with rice as an added ingredient), Tex-Mex fajitas, a Hawaiian alambre, and, at the bottom of the burritos list, a tortilla-free "bowl." There are apparently eight of these places in suburban New Jersey and Newark, and we looked forward to running into other ones in future Garden State travel. But for now, we were just glad to be heading home.

Where We Ate:

Costa Chica, 314 Handy St, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, (732) 545-2255

La Placita, 317 Handy St, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, (732) 247-0304

Cinco de Mayo, 206 French St, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, (732) 214-1551

Punto. Y Coma,, 179 French St, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, (732) 317-2878

La Valentina, 186 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740, (732) 222-5521

Taquitos Buenaventura, 10 3rd Ave, Long Branch, NJ 07740, (732) 222-6804

El Oaxaqueno, 9 Memorial Pkwy, Long Branch, NJ 07740, (732) 263-1199

Pancho’s Mexican Taqueria, 2303 Arctic Ave, Atlantic City, NJ 08401, (609) 344-2062

El Michoacano, 216 South West Blvd, Vineland, NJ 08360, (856) 690-9191

Tacos Bravos, 742 N Pearl St, Bridgeton, NJ 08302, (856) 451-8583

El Mariachi, 109 S Olden Ave, Trenton, NJ 08609, (609) 989-8010

Vincent’s Ice Cream, 902 N Olden Ave, Trenton, NJ 08638, (609) 396-3341

Los Gueros, 176 Bloomfield Ave, Bloomfield, NJ 07003, (973) 748-0191

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