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Blueberries to tacos: South Jersey town's shift de cuisine

HAMMONTON, N.J. - Long touted as "the blueberry capital of the world," this Pinelands town is rapidly gaining another distinction: taco capital of South Jersey.

HAMMONTON, N.J. - Long touted as "the blueberry capital of the world," this Pinelands town is rapidly gaining another distinction: taco capital of South Jersey.

With no fewer than half a dozen restaurants and trucks dotting the downtown streetscape, Hammonton - just a short jaunt off the Atlantic City Expressway - has become a destination for those craving everything from a humble soul-food menudo stew to crispy tostadas de tinga or unapologetic Tex-Mex.

And in a decidedly new chapter for this traditionally Italian agricultural enclave, the civic forces have lately embraced these Mexican kitchens as a much-needed jolt of energy to revitalize the downtown, helping to market businesses like Roberto Diaz's El Mariachi Loco to a wider audience.

After two years in business, Diaz recently rehabbed his storefront and sign with aid from a business-association grant.

"There are people who live here who thought this was a new restaurant," says Cassie Iacovelli, executive director of Main Street Hammonton. "A lot of people across the tracks would not have gone in there before. But there's been a cultural shift."

The rising Mexican presence is no surprise to those watching demographic changes in neighboring Cumberland County. In the spring, it was classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as "majority minority," with more than 50 percent of the population minorities, including 27 percent Latino. In Hammonton, just across the Atlantic County border, the Latino population is 21 percent.

The local fruit industry is the magnet that has drawn migrant labor to South Jersey for decades (not unlike Pennsylvania's mushroom farms in Kennett Square).

What has changed, however, is that this once-transient group has planted more permanent roots, with first-generation Americans, the children of those migrant workers, launching a number of businesses.

Siblings Maria and Jose Martinez, who as children spent many a summer picking season in Hammonton, are a perfect example.

"My parents fell in love with the town 14 years ago," said Maria Martinez. The family eventually settled in Upstate New York, "but my mom's dream was to move back here to this little town." She finally did, and the children soon followed, returning three years ago to convert an old diner into Las Lomas.

"It's a cycle," says Kelly Donio, owner of Simply Stationery and the Toy Market, and a part of the local business district. "All the Italian families [who established Hammonton] came here as immigrants to farm. And now our Mexican eateries are some of the best businesses we have."

This is still a small town lifted from a postcard of Americana - with white sidewalks ribboned across the manicured green lawns of gracious Victorian homes, with American flags fluttering from lampposts on Bellevue Avenue, the town's bustling little main street. It's the birthplace of the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, not to mention the hometown of pro wrestler Gary "The Pitbull" Wolfe.

The finally reviving downtown now features an ambitious Italian restaurant and wine bar called Annata, a friendly coffee shop, and a tidy pan-Asian spot called Eastern Phoenix for sushi and Chinese fare, which was also assisted by the downtown district.But the Mexican cuisine has been a catalyst for bringing diverse communities together.

"Mexican food is on the upswing with the English-speaking community," said the Rev. Ron Falotico of St. Mary of Mount Carmel, who has ministered to South Jersey's migrant workers for 43 years. "You see lawyers, doctors, judges, and families eating in the restaurants, too."

Las Lomas was the first beneficiary of cooperation with Main Street Hammonton, the business association, which helped with the design of signage, menus, and business cards, hoping to broaden its appeal to non-Mexican customers. A soft-opening party was arranged for civic leaders such as the mayor and town council to help break the multicultural ice. It worked. They spread the word, and now Maria Martinez estimates that the majority of her customers are not of Mexican heritage.

It is a delicate give and take, as some businesspeople are reluctant to relinquish Mexican decor to complete American makeovers.

Main Street Hammonton's Iacovelli conceded that she wasn't a fan of the green twinkling lights that Roberto Diaz insisted on stringing in the front window of his newly redesigned facade. But he pressed: "You have to allow me to put my 'Mexican' in!"

In the end, she saw the significance.

"We have to allow people to bring their cultural differences, too," she said. "It's all part of our story now."