What are your favorite food memories? For many, they are the wonderful dishes from childhood, prepared with love by parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Using these family favorites as the basis for a restaurant is not a new concept. But, for Mexican restaurants in South Jersey, it is a trend that is creeping across the region. The food at these eateries is a far cry from the chain-restaurant simplifications or inventions that many South Jerseyans had been accustomed to (run for the border, anyone?).
And the new style is finding an audience among diners who have become more adventurous themselves — “foodies” who have had their tastes widened by influences like the Food Network, which launched in 1993.
The Cordova family moved to New Jersey from Puebla, Mexico, and 10 year ago opened La Esperanza in Lindenwold. Members of the family, including father Saul Cordova, had been working in the restaurant industry in New York for several years. At the urging of the family, Saul made the decision to take a chance on his own.
Why South Jersey?
“It was a better place to raise a family,” his son, Saul Cordova, Jr., said.
The Lindenwold location was not a random choice. “The location of the restaurant was based on its surroundings and demographics, which had a huge Mexican and Central American population,” he said. “At the time, there wasn’t any authentic home cooking restaurants in the area. Our target audience was that population.”
The timing of their opening in 2002 was fortuitous. According to the 2010 Census, the Hispanic population in New Jersey increased 39 percent from 2000 to 2010, making it the largest minority population in the state.
The numbers in South Jersey were even more striking: Population increases in the Hispanic community ranged anywhere from 49 percent in Camden County to 108 percent in Gloucester County. In Lindenwold, the Hispanic population went up an astounding 400 percent.
The Hispanic population gave La Esperanza a chance to succeed. But something else happened along the way.
“Very soon there was a mixture of people,” Saul, Jr., said. “On any given Sunday, you could see Mexican families and American families having lunch in adjacent tables.”
Reaching out to the non-Hispanic community became an important tactic for La Esperanza, because many of their Hispanic customers were seasonal workers.
“It was very hard to maintain a steady clientele, and it was important to include all…so we decided to advertise and get the word out to the South Jersey community,” Saul, Jr., said. “With this, our customer base has shifted to the opposite spectrum, with a huge increase in our non-Spanish speaking customers.”
Being able to connect with the non-Hispanic community was not only important for the Cordova family but also for Franco Ordonez, who runs Franco’s Taqueria in Riverside.
Originally, Franco targeted his eatery to Riverside’s growing population of Mexicans, Ecuadorians and Brazilians. But in 2006 the town passed legislation to fine or even jail people who hired or rented to illegal immigrants. His customer base left in droves, so Franco was forced to change his approach.
The restaurant relaunched as Franco’s Taqueria in May of 2009. The new menu contained predictable options such as burritos and enchiladas, but the food wasn’t smothered in salty salsa or gloppy cheese.
At La Esperanza, Saul Jr. insists that authenticity is something he and his family feel very strongly about. “We understood (that) the common idea of Mexican food was based on negative experiences at commercialized fast food restaurants, which isn’t a correct representation of our food.”
Authentic Mexican food may contain ingredients that are unfamiliar to many non-Hispanic people. For example, tacos with chunks of beef tongue are pretty standard on the menus of these newer Mexican eateries. It’s not unusual to find tripe. At Las Lomas in Hammonton, pieces of tripe are fried crisp to an almost pork rind texture and served in a taco. El Senor Frog in Manahawkin serves up a bowl of belly soup (de pansita), a dark and rich tomato-based soup with tender chunks of tripe.
And then, there’s the barbacoa that’s prepared at La Esperanza: a whole goat slowly cooked for hours and served bone-in with warm corn tortillas on the side along with onions, cilantro and lime.
Saul Cordova Jr. describes the flavor as “a bit sweet and gamey…very tender and delicious.” Originally only served on weekends, the dish has become so popular that it is offered every day at the restaurant. Even though it’s now served all the time, the family does not get tired of it. As Saul Jr. says, “you’ll still find it at our family gatherings and special occasions. It’s just special for us.”
More and more, these dishes are becoming special to people not of Mexican origin. As Franco Ordonez put it: “Americans – you love what we do!”
Jersey Bites is a collaborative website of food writers in New Jersey. They write about restaurants, recipes, food news, food products, events, hunger relief programs, and anything else that tickles their taste buds.