Shore Restaurants, Part II: Miles off the coast, inland gems thrive for a different crowd
From an Irish pub rooted in County Limerick to an authentic taqueria channeling the traditions of Oaxaca, these spots often deliver fantastic values.
For many shoobies, Marmora and Cape May Courthouse are simply the names of exits on the Garden State Expressway where they hang a left and head east for the barrier islands. North Cape May? Perhaps you turned too soon on your way to the Lobster House. Somers Point? It’s a familiar bayside stopover to down some clams at Smitty’s and stock up on booze at Circle Liquors before crossing the bridge to that rental in dry Ocean City.
But what if you steered toward these inland communities on purpose and paused for dinner before crossing that bridge? I’ve got some finds for you. Because there are several intriguing new dining options on the mainland that, though they sit just miles from the beach, can feel like a world away in terms of culture and clientele, from an Irish pub rooted in County Limerick to an authentic taqueria that recalls the traditions of Oaxaca, an ambitious modern American BYOB, and two places that serve very different styles of Italian comfort. These restaurants are less dominated by the vagaries of the seasonal crowds. They cater to locals year-round, and often deliver fantastic values — plus a sense of community that’s hard to find in Shore towns where the tourist tides come and go.
NORTH CAPE MAY
El Pueblo Taqueria and Antojos
“I always wondered why my father chose Cape May,” says Reuben Nuñez-Martinez, pondering the impulse that prompted his father, Oscar, to move his family from Oaxaca, Mexico to South Jersey, more than two decades ago when Reuben was 7 and his brother, Jehovanny, was 10. “We were some of the only Mexicans here back then when we were growing up. But now ... there’s probably at least 100 or more.”
The brothers have since created a hub of authentic flavors for that community — and all fans of genuine Mexican cooking — with two storefronts in one North Cape May strip mall: Reuben’s El Pueblo Taqueria, a pleasant BYOB that’s now three years old, and Jehovanny’s new snack shop, Antojos, a perfect stop for a post-tacos dessert of fresh churros and chamoyada mango cups.
Reuben answered his own question about his family’s journey: the opportunity to work. This was clear after watching his dad cook 100-plus hour weeks at the now-closed Henry On the Beach in Cape May, where Reuben eventually learned to cook by his side. His father died two years ago. But Reuben, now 31, inherited that kitchen drive to build El Pueblo, where he’s finally had the chance to cook the traditional flavors he grew up with alongside his mother, Lucia Martinez, and wife, Dalila Martinez. “We all worked so hard (separately) in summer we never used to see each other from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now we are making up for lost time.”
The family reunion in this kitchen is worth experiencing. Each of the supple tortillas here are hand-pressed and griddled to order. The meats and marinades are made to family recipes. Lucia Martinez’s chorizo is one of the best I’ve tasted, with an extra softness to the ground sausage and three shades of chili spice — fruity guajillos, punchy puyas, and potent chiles de árbol — riding a whiff of cumin and paprika. The al pastor marinade uses fresh pineapple juice, which caramelizes nicely on the plancha. But I especially savored the tenderness of the cabeza tacos, its velvety shreds of slow-braised cheek meat (plus some other sundry cuts) punched-up by the vividly tart salsa verde and smoky salsa rojo. Among the more interesting flavors here is Martinez’s red mole, which is similar to the red salsa but thickened with masa harina. Try it with the chilaquiles or ladled over chicken enchiladas.
Antojos is a natural complement to the taqueria if you’re seeking the easy sweetness of ice cream sandwiched in concha rolls, or, perhaps one of those chamoyadas, a cup of frozen and fresh mango drizzled with chamoy — a distinctive condiment that’s sour and sweet — dusted with the spicy-lime-salt spice of Tajin powder, and slurped through a tart tamarind candy straw. It’s intense but refreshing. If you’re up for some savory snack fireworks, though, Antojos is one of the few places serving the Mexican specialty known as tostilocos, in which your junk food bag of choice — Hot Cheetos, Funyuns, or Takis — gets ripped open sideways, then dressed-up with a riot of boldness, from Valentina hot sauce to Japanese peanuts, queso fresco, and pickled chicharrones.
“It’s a super-weird dish,” says Jehovanny. “But people love it.” And so now the question — “Why North Cape May?” — has new answers. El Pueblo Taqueria, 3704 Bayshore Rd., North Cape May, 609-600-3793; elpueblotaqueria.com; Antojos, 3704 Bayshore Rd., North Cape May, 609-551-2498; facebook.com/antojosncm
Josie Kelly’s Public House
There’s a likely reason I’ve never reviewed an Irish pub at the Shore in two decades of coverage. As much as I love a good shepherd’s pie, creamy bowl of chowder, or beef stew in winter, traditional pub cooking trends a bit heavier than the lighter fare I crave at the beach. Then again, rarely have I found it executed with the kind of no-shortcuts finesse and quality I encountered at the relatively new Josie Kelly’s Public House in Somers Point. And to be honest, there is no wrong season for a pint of Guinness poured with the skill displayed by these publicans. Working the tap handle like a stick shift over the course of several minutes, they have the patience and technique to coax that dark brew through its slow-motion cascade into a 20-ounce draught of malty blackness topped with a creamy dome that quivers above the rim.
There’s little doubt the concept resonates with the public, which has thronged enthusiastically to this sprawling 260-seat bi-level space, which opened last August after handsomely rehabbing the building that once housed Mac’s Seafood. And the appeal is more than just its ample parking lot. Owners Dermot (once a manager for the RíRá chain) and Kathleen Lloyd have turned to his childhood roots in County Limerick for inspiration on the menu. It features several recipes from his mom, Margaret Lloyd, a culinary teacher in Ireland. The fresh-baked brown bread that comes to the table is one of those, and so is the creamy seafood chowder, a hearty bowl that’s cooked fresh to order with smoked mackerel, haddock, shrimp, potatoes, and mussels and plenty of fresh herbs.
Dairy richness is ever-present here, especially with crowd favorites like the Dublin Lawyer, a seafood risotto in Irish whiskey cream sauce. So is crunchy pastry. A tawny pie crust seals the crock of Margaret’s beef stew, soulful with a rich stout gravy. The sausage rolls aren’t much to look at, but they were delicious, with fresh ground sausage and sage-scented apples rolled inside flaky puff-pastry tubes.
For more affordable sandwich options, there’s a wide selection of burgers made with Pat LaFrieda patties; the Reuben is built on good house-cooked Irish corned beef. A roasted salmon over farro risotto glazed in Earl Gray tea proves chef Rich Semonchik has some modern moves, too. But this place specializes in pub traditions, and the excellent fish and chips, a fillet of fresh haddock inside a golden crust made from Harp beer batter, does the genre proud.
For dessert, rice pudding crême brulée is on theme, albeit a little dense. But with 100 whiskies behind the upstairs bar (certainly one of the largest collections at the Shore), I’d head straight for a dram of Connemara or Knappogue Castle. Or at least the proper Irish coffee, a glass cup of java spiked with Tullamore Dew that Kathleen carefully layers with a cool head of whipped cream, shaken to thickness in a Mason jar then poured over a hot spoon. Once the summer crowds and A/C-chilled nights come and go, this pub will no doubt still be pouring plenty of them for grateful, thirsty locals cozying up to blazing fires with their chowders, pints, and pies. Josie Kelly’s Public House, 908 Shore Rd., Somers Point, N.J., 609-904-6485; josiekellys.com
Carlo Marsini had food truck dreams, having left a long run of casino kitchens to run a busy catering company that made its name serving filet mignon sandwiches and pulled pork at Hurricane baseball games in Margate. But when a little pizzeria became available in early 2018 at the corner of Shore Road and Route 152, he planted roots in Somers Point for a casual roadhouse BYOB that’s become one of the better dining values in the area, with food made from scratch and entrees almost entirely under $20.
The menu at Marsini’s Kitchen is squarely rooted in the home-cooked traditions of his Italian American upbringing. He’s a member of Atlantic City Bread Royalty, the extended family behind the A. Rando Bakery. (“It goes deep, there’s a lotta Randos…”) And so it’s no coincidence the single best thing on this menu is a sandwich — the chicken cutlet Italiano — which layers freshly fried cutlets over a crusty seeded roll lined with a crumbled base of Claudio’s sharp provolone, then topped with broccoli rabe, silky pink sheets of prosciutto, and three separate doses of extra-virgin olive oil to assure each and every layer gets a drizzle. (“Boom! Boom! Boom!”)
That two-fisted sandwich alone is worth the trip. But I’d also come for a bowl of the incredibly homey Italian wedding soup, with tender little beef meatballs that Marsini has perfected with Pecorino, herbs, and two kinds of breadcrumbs (one for softness, one for flavor) which bob in fresh chicken broth alongside escarole and vegetables.
Marsini, 36, who went to culinary school in Mays Landing, doesn’t feel the need to always be hemmed in by style. His pulled pork has the surprising sweetness of a backyard BBQ rather than the expected Italian twist. A recent delivery of sushi-grade tuna inspired a sesame-crusted steak entree with Asian accents, as well as a flatbread pizza topped with seared rare fish, soy reduction, and wasabi-infused ricotta. (A pizza we ate the week prior with sweet summer corn and pesto-greened ricotta convinces me the tuna pie may have been worthwhile.) Marsini also gets creative with a fried empanada of the day, a flaky half-moon turnover filled with various stuffings, including recent riffs on cheesesteak, chicken Parm, and corn with bechamel.
But Marsini’s sweet spot is undoubtedly red gravy-style comfort, which he delivers with thoughtful and generous gusto. There’s nearly ¾-pound of poultry tenderloins pounded into the chicken Parmesan cutlets that shingle the slopes of a veritable mountain of thin spaghetti in red sauce for just $17. My favorite entree of sausage cavatelli was just as ample, a brimming bowl of ricotta dumplings tossed with slow-braised broccoli rabe (“I don’t like that hard-stemmed rabe; my grandmother would call that ‘whiplash’”) and a wine-splashed sauce enriched by the fat of sweet Italian sausage that’s rendered at the start of every order. I couldn’t finish it all.
“I believe in leftovers, my friend,” says Marsini. And we’re happy to take him up on it. Marsini’s Kitchen, 12 E. Maryland Ave., Somers Point, 609-904-6301; marsiniskitchen.com
Joseph Massaglia has been a fixture on the Jersey Shore dining scene for more than three decades as a chef, maitre d’, and radio host (WOND’s “Table for Two”), but his restaurant, Mama Mia’s, was the epitome of a locals’ haunt during its 30-year run in a Seaville strip mall. A move this June to what he calls “Downtown Marmora,” his new strip mall home beside a ShopRite just a few minutes from the Roosevelt Boulevard bridge to Ocean City, should broaden his audience.
The Piedmontese-raised Massaglia, 66, is a natural-born showman, eager to touch every table and share his vision of regional Italian cucina, headlined by specialties he grew up with in the north before he set sail as teen on the Pacific Princess’ “Love Boat.” The cruise ship is where he met his wife, Christine, a passenger who eventually lured him back to Philadelphia, where he worked with Peter von Starck at La Panetiere before heading to Atlantic City’s casinos.
Crisply fried rails of polenta are sweet and lemony in the style of his hometown, Brozolo, with roasted peppers and an anchovy-accented bagna cauda dip. A vibrant green pesto made from young basil leaves, just as he was taught as a 13-year-old dishwasher in Portofino, lends a jade-green hue to delicate poufs of potato gnocchi. There are egg-washed sheets of eggplant francaise rolled around creamy spinach mornay in a pink blush sauce. And then there’s tortellini Pavarotti, an indulgent dish with artichokes and sundried tomatoes in sage cream that Massaglia’s mama, Bertina, cooked for Pavarotti himself when the tenor walked into his brother’s Queen Village kitchen at La Grolla in 1976.
The crisply fried arancini stuffed with ground meat, risotto, and fresh mozzarella are true to Sicilian tradition. But even the tender braciola in Mama Mia’s excellent “Sunday Dinner” — an otherwise Neapolitan pasta dish with meatballs and sausage in slow-steeped red sauce — gets a Northern-style stuffing of sausage and mushrooms instead of the typical Southern breadcrumbs.
For such a small restaurant (just 40 seats), Mama Mia’s has a large menu, ranging from take-out pizza to large, luxury veal chops Massaglia cooks on a hot stone and a Parmesan-encrusted Sardinian shrimp dish I’ll look forward to trying next time. But I’m glad we didn’t miss the pappardelle, which required the old-school maitre d’ to maneuver a wheel of hollowed-out Pecorino through this tight-squeeze dining room and toss the fresh pasta ribbons with braised short ribs in a rich gravy that he laced tableside with streams of white truffle oil. (I’m generally against truffle oil, but it worked here.)
The dish has been so popular, he said, “my arms are killing me!” But for a chef starting over at 66, I suppose, that’s not a terrible problem to have. Mama Mia’s, Marmora Shopping Center, 4 W. Roosevelt Blvd., Marmora, 609-624-9322; mamamiasnj.com
Cape May Court House
Cape May Court House is one mainland town that’s clearly in the midst of a renaissance, with several craft breweries (Brewvi-winning Slack Tide; the new Coho; and Bucket Brigade), the Cape May County Zoo, and an historic downtown district that has energetic new projects like the Matthews Seafood Market I featured last summer.
Scola BYOB, a charming little bistro with an ambitious kitchen, is the latest bright spot in the Court House revival. Set into the renovated storefront of a 1908 building that was once a cobbler and horseshoe specialist, there’s a vintage air to this 30-seat dining room’s brick-walled space and low tin ceilings. The restaurant is part of the Kara Restaurant Group, which operates George’s Place, Shamone, and YB in Cape May. But co-chef and co-owner Ben Scola is the namesake here, a New Hampshire native who fell in love with a Jersey girl, his fiancé and pastry chef Jacklyn Buckingham, who’s responsible for daily cheesecakes that make a celebratory finale to the meal.
I had mixed feelings about some of the cooking, which defaulted to some dated tropes like baked goat cheese drenched in jam and misused haloumi by putting slices of the Cypriot cheese on toast rather than grilling it directly (its reason for greatness). But there were so many cute little service flourishes here, from the complimentary soup of the day poured tableside into espresso cups to the tiny savory cones of scooped goat cheese and bacon jam, that we were quickly charmed by the hospitality.
And while some of the spare presentations bordered on awkward (with occasional random swipes of piquillo and mustard cream), I ultimately enjoyed most of the wide-ranging flavors: the duck confit with blackberry-balsamic reduction; a tender pork steak with a pear-cranberry chutney cooked by chef de cuisine Nick Price; a very good filet mignon; and a bougie meatloaf glazed in smoked-fig ketchup (Peter Karapanagiotis’ dish) that was hardly traditional but delicious nonetheless.
“We’ve broken a lot of grandmother’s hearts with that dish,” said Ben Scola, quickly adding, “in a good way.”
I’m sure. For old-timers watching Cape May Court House rise again, Scola’s destination meatloaf should be an encouraging sign of hope. Scola BYOB, 3 Mechanic St., Cape May Court House, N.J., 609-536-8883; kararestaurantgroup.com