When I think of the iconic flavors of the Jersey Shore, fresh boardwalk doughnuts instantly come to mind along with subs on Atlantic City long rolls, clam shack platters, and so much Italian food I’ve sometimes referred to it as the Pasta Coast. Which makes sense, considering Italian immigrants helped build the seafood industry in coastal towns like Sea Isle City over 100 years ago.
But lately, I’ve also added tacos al pastor, molcajetes and mole enchiladas to my must-eat Shore dining list. And that makes sense, too, when you consider how essential Mexican immigration has been to South Jersey over the past few decades, drawn to the casino industry, agriculture, and the hospitality and landscaping jobs that resort towns generate. As those communities continue to mature, a wealth of next-gen entrepreneurial efforts have produced a string of excellent family-run kitchens from Manahawkin to Cape May cooking serious renditions of traditional foods reflecting a variety of Mexico’s regions.
At La Cabañita, you’ll find Veracruz-style seafood and salsas. Don’t miss Nuevo El Mariachi Loco or its mole Poblano and pozole. Head to El Pueblo for the guajillo-scented Oaxacan chorizo, or El Tacuate, where you’ll be served a cauldron of seafood stew tableside, bubbling from the scalding heat of imported river stones, an homage to the region’s indigenous past. How about a birria box to feed a crowd from Taqueria Rendon? Talk about iconic — these are some of the most compelling flavors you can find at the Shore right now.
The Mexican options are deep at the Jersey Shore, but here a dozen of my current favorites to get you started. Let the beach fiesta begin!
Manahawkin is home to several Mexican restaurants, including popular strip mall standbys El Tenampa and El Tepeyac. But it’s worth the jaunt just off Route 72 to find the delightful new La Cabañita, a cozy standalone building charmingly rehabbed with a flower-fringed stone facade by landscaper Rene Bautista, who co-owns this six-month-old restaurant with his wife, Dolores Alvarado. It’s a new chapter for the couple, who once operated a taqueria out of a gas station flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Alvarado and her family, along with chef Alexander Mendieta, are producing fresh, bountiful platters with Veracruz-style flavors reminiscent of her native city, Martinez de la Torre, off the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll taste that sabor in the stellar shrimp cocktail (orange Fanta is the secret splash), the flaky masa empanada turnovers stuffed with pulled chicken, and the molcajete, a mixed-meat feast highlighted by fresh chorizo and fist-sized chunks of tender carnitas bathed in Alvarado’s distinctive green salsa (all jalapeños, no tomatillo). The handmade tortillas are outstanding, but don’t miss the puffier gorditas, simply served Veracruz-style with a spoonful of salsa topped with the meat of your choice. Pro tip: go for al pastor! La Cabañita Mexican Restaurant, 621 E. Bay Ave., Manahawkin, N.J., 08050; 609-488-2056; lacabanitarestaurantnj.com
Ruben Nuñez of El Pueblo (also on this list) told me that El Tacuate in Atlantic City is where he takes his family out to eat — and I can see why. Few pay more attention to the details necessary to re-create the flavors of their home in coastal Oaxaca than Carmela and Samuel Velazquez, down to the earthenware comal that lends their stellar tortillas a distinctive texture. They even import river stones, which are heated over flames then dropped into the bubbling caldo de piedra, a seafood stew in homage to the Indigenous Tacuate people of Santa Maria Zacatepec. I have a long roster of favorites coming from this tiny but tidy corner space, including the banana leaf-wrapped tamales laced with mole negro and red-sauced tender pork, and the massive huaraches topped with fatty, flavorful nuggets of al pastor. But the winner is always El Tacuate’s epic molcajete. This carved volcanic stone bowl comes fringed with nopal wings shaved to look like a wig of green hair, and its center is piled high with a bonanza of shrimp, chorizo, spiced pork, and chicken dunked into a pool of two blended sauces, a fiery salsa a la diabla and salsa macha with two distinctive imported chilies — guajillo and costeño — that lends each bite swagger, heat, and depth. El Tacuate, 1704 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City, N.J., 08401, 609-541-4366.
The Ducktown corner of Arctic and N. Mississippi Avenues in Atlantic City has long been synonymous with the classic sandwiches of the White House Sub Shop. But good luck diverting me from the other street food gem next door: Pancho’s Mexican Taqueria. Founded in 2005, Pancho’s and its Oaxacan staff excel in the art of the taco, especially the late-night variety (they’re open until midnight). Come patient, because every tortilla is hand-pressed to order then whipped like a Frisbee across to the grill, where they’re finished with meat, three to a $12 platter. Tongue, suadero, and tripe are favorites. But the amazingly tender pork carnitas and tangy al pastor, marinated in guajillo and pineapple, are among the best I’ve every had. Those fresh tortillas, thinner than most but so pliant and supple, they’re on another level. Pancho’s Mexican Taqueria, 2303 Arctic Ave., Atlantic City, N.J., 609-344-2062; panchosofac.com
Yes, Hammonton is the self-proclaimed “Blueberry Capital of the World.” But this agricultural community also offers one of the region’s most established collections of Mexican restaurants, with at least a half-dozen destinations for sopes, elotes, tacos and dorilocos. Just offexit 28 is Nuevo El Mariachi Loco, Roberto Diaz’s festive Mexican makeover of a Victorian downtown storefront where I come for one my favorite red pozole stews, excellent chicken enchiladas in mole paying tribute to Diaz’s Poblano roots, Coke-braised carnitas and huaraches, and quesadillas folded around huitlacoche with Oaxaca cheese. Nuevo El Mariachi Loco, 101 Bellevue Ave., Hammonton, N.J., 609-270-7224; elmariachilocorestaurant.com
Tacos El Tio, which six years ago transformed an Egg Harbor Township tool store into a lively cantina, is neither owned by Mexicans nor patronized by many, according to its manager. But for a 170-seat place that chugs through nearly 40 gallons of Cuervo a week, the food here under executive chef Jimmy Sanchez is far better than I expected. All the preparations are made daily (”we don’t have a freezer,” says manager Jose Delgadillo). There’s legit quesillo cheese in the quesadillas, fresh tuna tossed with cubes of watermelon in the refreshing ceviche, a tangy tamarind straw sticking out of the zesty Michelada, and a bountiful Bandeja Mexicana platter with an array of flavorful meats that are carefully cooked. And no, El Tio’s pollo ranchero hit isn’t exactly traditional, but the big chicken breast — smothered in chipotle cream and stuffed with poblanos, chorizo, and three kinds of Mexican cheese — is flat-out delicioso. Tacos El Tio, 6400 E. Black Horse Pike, Egg Harbor Township, N.J., 609-568-6386; tacoseltio.com
I’ve long counted this understated storefront on busy West Avenue as one of the best restaurants of any sort in Ocean City. It’s remained takeout-only during the pandemic, but these flavors travel well. Owner Roberto Marroquin’s red mole is especially good, its guajillo brew spicier and less sweet than the chocolate brown Poblano-style moles more common in Philly. The enchiladas in tart green salsa verde are also favorites, as are the camarones a la diabla, which reflect the Pacific Coastal influence of Guerrero, its tomato sauce punched-up with chile de arbol peppers. Anything with the housemade chorizo is excellent, especially the sope rounds. But, really, I love all of Cinco de Mayo’s masa creations — the broader huaraches, the stuffed tlayuda turnovers, the entomatadas layered with salsa roja and the familiar tortillas for tacos, which get griddled to order on the plancha near the door. For dessert? Rich and creamy flan. Cinco de Mayo, 1039 West Ave., Ocean City, 609-399-0199; cincodemayooc.com
The birria trend sweeping the nation has arrived at the Shore this summer, too, and you can thank Marco Rendon, a longtime veteran working for big-name casino chefs (Luke Palladino, Wolfgang Puck, and Michael Symon), who took his Instagram pandemic pop-up sensation to a brick-and-mortar storefront in Northfield in the spring. There’s a menu of fine taqueria favorites, from fish tacos to shrimp with homemade chorizo, as well as patacones reflecting his wife’s Colombian heritage. But the slow-cooked birria tacos — wrapped with oozy queso and tenderly stewed beef or chicken, with a side of consommé for dunking — are the primary draw, especially when tucked by the dozen into a pizza box with chips, guac, and salsas for an instant takeout fiesta. Taqueria Rendon, 201 Tilton Rd. Unit 2, Northfield, N.J., 609-568-5588; on Instagram @taqueria_rendon
El Capitan’s Taco Shack
This cheerful taco shack began as Vanessa Burk’s off-season refuge from life as a corporate chef at the Wells Fargo Center. But her summer Shore gig took on added appeal for this avid surfer as the original pop-up in Ocean City found an enthusiastic audience, then a permanent new home last summer on the mainland in Woodbine Borough. Her sea-foam-colored shack ringed by picnic tables and grass is now a chill corner oasis to devour smoky ears of grilled elotes and masa-crisped mahi tacos wrapped in tortillas from Bridgeton’s El Paisano market. Burk, who draws on her time riding the waves of Southern California and Baja as inspiration, focuses on fresh flavors and quality ingredients, as in the teres major for her tender steak tacos, plump shrimp specials in blue tortillas, and one of the more flavorful veggie tacos at the Shore. Burk does Beyond Meat tacos for the vegan crowd, too, with a complete battery of Mexican hot sauce bottles lined up at the takeout window to lend them an extra kick. El Capitan’s Taco Shack, 1250 N.J. Route 50, Woodbine, N.J., 609-234-3258; on Instagram
El Pueblo Taqueria, El Pueblo Taqueria 2, and Antojos
The Nuñez family has been a fixture behind the scenes of some classic Cape May kitchens for more than two decades. But over the last five years, the Oaxacan home cooking of Ruben Nuñez and his mother, Lucia Martinez— guajillo-flared chorizo, red mole and supple, pressed-to-order tortillas — have been front and center at popular El Pueblo Taqueria in North Cape May. Its sibling, El Pueblo 2, made a debut this summer on the Cape May Promenade, where Reuben is faithfully slinging tacos topped with fat-crisped carnitas, al pastor with charred pineapple, and tender lengua for the tourist crowds. The mixed-meat campechanos dusted with crunchy chicharrones is a smart choice over the hearty and popular rice bowls. For a quenching dessert of chamoyada and hot churros, head back to North Cape May, where Reuben’s older brother, Jehovanny, serves up spicy snacks and fruity refreshments at Antojos. El Pueblo Taqueria, 3704 Bayshore Rd., North Cape May, N.J., 609-600-3793; elpueblotaqueria.com; Antojos, 3704 Bayshore Rd., North Cape May, N.J., 609-551-2498; facebook.com/antojosncm; El Pueblo Taqueria 2, 730 Beach Ave., Cape May, N.J., 609-600-1107; elpueblotaqueria.com
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Lucy Covino will be familiar to fans of Andrea Trattoria, the Italian restaurant she owns in Millville with her Neapolitan husband, Andrea Covino. But creating La Doña was Lucy’s dream. And if you’re lucky when you take your seat at La Doña’s lovely outdoor patio off the Washington Street Mall, the Oaxacan-born Covino will be the one to hand-mash your guacamole tableside (Mexican avocados only! She insists on their densely creamy texture). Her touch is ever-present in a menu featuring her mother’s recipe for a 27-ingredient mole negro and chorizo blended with fermented pineapple skin tepache. Even the black beans were memorable, gaining depth from avocado leaves dried on her mother’s porch in Mexico before they’re shipped to New Jersey, along with chiles and epazote. La Doña, 31 Perry St., Cape May, N.J., 609-884-5503; ladonamex.com