Americans’ appetite for Mexican food is insatiable.
According to statistics, Mexican food is the third most popular cuisine in the United States with 86 percent of Americans acknowledging they eat Mexican food on a regular basis. That makes the U.S. the No. 1 consumer of Mexican food outside of Mexico and represents about 8 to 10 percent of the total national restaurant landscape, and it continues to escalate every year. As of 2020, there were more than 65,000 Mexican restaurants in the country.
So it shouldn’t be surprised that Mexican eateries are popping up in South Jersey like Dollar General stores.
And, just in time for May 5 — Cinco de Mayo, a holiday more popular here than in Mexico that commemorates the anniversary of Mexico’s victory over the French empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1762 — two restaurants debuted recently: La Mesa in Galloway Township, and Mr. Gordo’s Taqueria in Ventnor.
Here’s what you can expect if you celebrate Cinco de Mayo at these two new additions to Mexican-American scene in South Jersey.
La MesaThe Background: Located in the former Dubliner and Katinas Kosmos location on Jimmie Leeds Road in Galloway Township, La Mesa has been absolutely killing it since opening about a month ago.
La Mesa comes from the trio of Jonathan Santoro, a former bartender at HQ2 at Ocean Casino Resort and Haven and Vic & Anthony’s inside Golden Nugget Atlantic City; Drew Huggard, current owner of Romanelli’s Garden Café in Galloway and former general manager of Vic & Anthony’sand Grotto inside Golden Nugget; and Genadi Vasilev, a former server at Dougherty’s Steakhouse and Gallagher’s Steakhouse inside Resorts Casino Hotel and Vic & Anthony’s at Golden Nugget.
Do you see the common denominator? Yep, they all worked together at Vic & Anthony’s and decided it was time to exit the casino world and work for themselves.
“The truth is I was spending a lot of time at Romanelli’s hanging out with Drew because I had nothing else to do during the pandemic,” Santoro says. “So we talked about possibly expanding one of his businesses or starting something new, and then an opportunity came up when Drew was approached to take over the Kosmos location. It all seemed to just come together. We reached out to Genadi, and pulled him with us, and the rest is history.”
La Mesa is the trio’s vision to offer a different kind of Mexican experience than most.
“Really, we chose Mexican because there really isn’t anything in this area,” Santoro says. “You either have to get dressed up and spend a fortune in Atlantic City or settle for chicken wings and french fries somewhere. So we wanted to be in the middle, and we decided an elevated Mexican concept was the way to go.”
La Mesa went through a pretty radical transformation that includes a Mexican street look with brickwork, graffiti and string lights, and the kitchen is staffed nearly entirely of Oaxaca, Mexico, natives, including Chef Pablo Hernandez-Cruz, who also left Vic & Anthony’s to join his former colleagues.
“So far, so good,” Santoro says with a laugh. “Let’s just say we have zero regrets leaving the casino life behind us.”
The Food: La Mesa’s menu is smallish but hits all of the right spots. What we liked about it is that it succeeds at offering some unique items you won’t see at most other Mexican joints, including spicy chorizo meatballs ($12) with crema drizzle and lime; seafood ceviche ($14) with shrimp, scallops, mahi mahi and salsa fresca; empanadas ($12) with your choice of beef or chicken; Bang Bang Shrimp ($15) with onion habanero and coleslaw and a grilled Caesar salad ($9) for those at the table who might not love standard Mexican fare; and even two kids of soup, including Pozole, a traditional Mexican soup made with pork, hominy, red chiles, lime, shredded cabbage and cilantro that not enough Mexican stops offer.
Of course, the rest of the menu features what you would expect at most Mexican restaurants, including nachos ($12 to $14) with choice of chicken, steak, pork, chorizo or birria; queso fundido ($11) with homemade chips; quesadillas ($12) with choice of protein or veggies; a very cool Guac Trio with pork belly, pepper jam and sweet chili pepper toppings; a large array of tacos ($11 to $22) ranging from Fuego Cauliflower for the vegetarians out there to pork carnitas, steak, the very popular birria, grilled or fried fish, shrimp, chirizo, steak, chicken tinga and — our favorite – the al pastor with a very tasty pineapple salsa, queso fresco and chipotle aioli.
La Mesa even offers some nice entrees, with standouts including chicken enchiladas ($19) with mole, tomatoes, onion and queso fresco; barbacoa ($23), braised beef with rice; carne asada ($26), a grilled filet with steak fries and poblano peppers; and whole red snapper ($28) with pickled red onion and avocado.
Save some room for churros ($7) served with ice cream, choco flan ($8) with caramel drizzle and fresh berries; and tres leches ($8), a traditional sponge cake with fresh cream and berries.
The Drinks: The highlight of the night, for us, was La Mesa’s inventive cocktail menu. Yes, you can get your standard margarita, but why have that when you can try the Lavender-Rita ($13) made with Casamigos Blanco, Combier Orange liquor, Lavender, butterfly pea and egg white; and a Spicy Cucumber-Rita ($12) with Codigo Silver tequila, Combier Orange liquor, cucumber, jalapeno and Himalayan pink salt. Or get off the margarita train and jump on the Smoke Break ($11) with Banhez Smoky mezcal, elderflower, strawberry and tajin; or the Alibi You a Drink ($11) with locally made Mr. Fingers Alibi Gin, passionfruit and blueberry.
“I went in loving tequila already, so the cocktail menu is all me,” Santoro says. “This was the easy part.”
The Future: If the crowds continue at La Mesa like they have been, the trio would consider opening other locations, but first they want to open for lunch – probably after summer. More immediately, La Mesa hopes to offer takeout and delivery for lunch before opening their doors to the public at 3 p.m.
“With Stockton and the hospital so close, there is a lot of potential takeout and delivery business there that we can’t ignore,” Santoro says. “It’s been a great beginning, and we can’t wait to see where it goes from here.”
Mr. Gordo’s Taqueria The Background: Located in the former Domenico’s on the same block as the new Ventnor Square Theater, Mr. Gordo’s Taqueria is the sixth concept and seventh location from the Idell family featuring the husband and wife team of Robert and Jillian Idell and Robert’s parents Bob and Sharon Idell that have created amazing local concepts including Drip N Scoop in Ocean City and Somers Point, and Dead End Bakehouse, The Sand House, Sunrise Café and Dockside Kitchen in Ocean City.
“I always thought Mexican food was trendy, and while there are a lot of good Mexican restaurants around, there are not a lot of places that are modern Mexican where you can have a quick-serve experience whether you sit down and have a meal or takeout,” says Robert Idell. “We were familiar with the location and thought Mexican was something Margate and Ventnor was missing since there are tons of Italian places and other stuff. Mexican cuisine has such a super wide spectrum from Taco Bell to Chipotle to super authentic, so we wanted to be a modern, approachable concept that is authentic yet eases people into some of the spices and flavors of Mexican cuisine for those who might be a little reluctant to try it. We are more approachable.”
Led by Chef Gelasio Aguilar, a native of Mexico who has cooked at Carmine’s at the Tropicana for the last 15 years, Mr. Gordo’s shows the kitchen veteran bringing recipes from his home to Ventnor for the first time since coming to America.
“He welcomes everyone’s feedback, and everyone is so opinionated about Mexican food because everyone has experiences with it, but he takes that feedback and really uses it to make specials that the market requests,” Idell says. “It’s a work in progress, and we are enjoying it.”
The restaurant, which Idell describes as clean, simple and colorful in decor, seats about 70 inside with plans to expand seating with 30 more spots outside.
The Food: Mr. Gordo’smenu is relatively small, but a lot of things stand out. For starters, the Mexican shrimp cocktail ($14) is served with a mango citrus sauce, cucumbers, radish and red onions; chorizo fundido ($12) features a dip made with four cheeses and caramelized onions topped with chorizo and diced jalapenos and served with homemade tortilla chips; the chip dip sampler ($14) is for the dip lover with fresh pico de gallo, guacamole, mango cucumber salad and fresh tortilla chips; and the tinga flautas ($11), corn tortilla tacos deep fried with spiced, shredded chicken tinga topped with tomatoes, lettuce, queso fresco and Mexican crema are the best you will have in the area.
Authentic tacos ($13 to $16), burritos ($12 to $15), quesadillas ($13 to $15) and chimichangas rule the menu in every variety from chorizo to steak asada, camarones (shrimp), carnitas, el pastor, but the birria tacos are really popular featuring braised beef bathed in chiles and spices and stuffed into fried corn tortillas with cheese, cilantro and onions. There’s also gringo-style tacos featuring seared mahi, blackened tuna, vegetables and chicken in soft flour tortillas.
Tortas – Mexican sandwiches served on a light and fluffy bun seared and spread with mayonnaise, refried beans, sliced avocado, lettuce, tomato and queso Oaxaca, include variations such as ham, chicken, chorizo and carne asada. And there are about a half dozen entrees ($19 to $38) including three variations of tinga enchiladas with house-made red and green salsa; charred skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and arugula salad; fajitas; and Mr. Gordo’s Parrillada, skirt steak, chicken, chorizo and shrimp with nopal cebollines (cactus pads) grilled jalapenos, guac, lime, rice, beans and tortillas is one of the most authentic items on the menu.
Desserts ($3.50 to $8.95) include choco flan, churros and fried ice cream topped with chocolate syrup and whipped cream.
The Drinks: AlthoughMr. Gordo doesn’t have a licencia de licor, it does offer a margarita ($5 glass, $10 pitcher) that you can drink as a mocktail or add your own tequila at the BYO establishment. They also have some other great options including michelada ($4) – basically a better version of a Bloody Mary that you can add beer to — and horchata ($4) – a white rice-based drink flavored with cinnamon and sugar – as well as a bunch of flavors of Jarritos Mexican soda.
The Future: Whenit comes to the Idell family, expect more locations.
“We have already been approached about bringing it to the mainland,” Idell says. “A lot of people wish we had a liquor license, so that’s maybe something we are looking for with bigger square footage, as well. We are always open to looking at what’s in the market and how to grow it. But this is a great spot to start in.”