Quaint Hammonton, N.J., is brimming with the flavors and sounds of Mexico

Spicy tripe stew called "rico menudo" is served at La Rosa de Oro, a modest luncheonette whose menu offers true Mexican soul food.
Spicy tripe stew called "rico menudo" is served at La Rosa de Oro, a modest luncheonette whose menu offers true Mexican soul food. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff)
Posted: September 28, 2012

HAMMONTON, N.J. - Marilu Saldana leaned through the window of her Tacos y Tortas La Carreta truck. " ¡Díganme, muchachos!" she called out, asking three Latino landscape workers for their lunch orders of hand-pressed sopes and quesadillas.

" ¡Toda la Vida!" belted Mexican balladeer Emmanuel to the dinner crowd at El Mariachi Loco restaurant just up the street, his vintage pop anthem blaring from the karaoke machine that shakes the pinewood walls and guacamole bowls on weekend nights.

At Tacos al Carbon, a truck on Egg Harbor Road around the corner, a devoted customer in line offered some savvy advice. "Get the pork tacos," said Doug Fitzgerald, who owns his own landscaping company. "I always stop here on the way to my place in Avalon. It's our little secret spot." Not anymore.

With the authentic flavors and sounds of Mexico everywhere, a growing number of taquerias and trucks have become popular fixtures here. Longtime residents may be surprised that, not only do they have one of the region's best authentic taquerias in El Mariachi Loco, but several places worth a brief detour off the Atlantic City Expressway.

Here are the highlights of my visits to six of them:

El Mariachi Loco

My favorite of Hammonton's sit-down offerings, El Mariachi's no-frills dining room thrums with the Mexi-music of a weekend DJ. But it's the cooking from owner Roberto Diaz, 29 - who finally gets to pay homage here to his Puebla roots after working the line at Maggiano's, country clubs, and Philadelphia hotels - that is worth the visit. The chicken enchiladas in mole poblano is standout, the mysterious mahogany gravy complex with earthy dried mulato chilies; fruity with plantains; nutty with almonds and peanuts; and tinged to sweet darkness with Mexican chocolate, cumin, and cloves. But the salsas are electric, too, the tart green vibrant with tomatillos and avocados; the deep-brown, salsa-tinted roasted jalapeños. The guacamole is beguilingly simple but addictive, because every cilantro-laced bowl is mashed in a molcajete to order. Most important, El Mariachi makes all its tortillas in-house, including thicker huaraches and quesadillas folded around huitlacoche (corn fungus) and Oaxaca cheese, or orange- and Coke-braised carnitas. Also not to miss: great cheese-stuffed poblano peppers.

El Mariachi Loco, 17 12th St., Hammonton, 609-270-7224.


Tacos al Carbon

My tipster was right. The pork tacos of shredded carnitas meat, tenderly braised with achiote, garlic, and tomatoes, were excelente. They were even better when splashed with the orange zip of chile de arbol crema, or a spoonful of fresh salsa ranchera from the lava-rock bowl perched on the steel ledge of Dominga "Mingui" Garcia's truck. Garcia, a native Hammontonian and daughter of a migrant farm worker turned baking-company supervisor, launched her truck nearly 15 years ago with the help of her husband, Lorenzo, who does the cooking, and son, Lorenzo, who helps man the grill.

"I do the seasoning," says Mingui, whose recipes draw both on her family's northern roots in Monterrey and also on the southern influences of her mother-in-law's Guerrero.

This is classic taqueria fare, down to the cilantro-onion confetti scattered on top. But there is also a homespun touch that crackles with an elusive flair, from the al pastor seasoned with pineapple and guajillo, to the freshly fried tostada discs topped with creamy frijoles and smoky chipotle-steeped chicken tinga. And then there is my favorite taco topping: "cabeza," which in this case means beef cheeks steamed to feathery, tender shreds, then seared to a plancha crisp. Thank goodness for the picnic tables, so we could devour them on the spot.

Tacos al Carbon, corner of Peach and Egg Harbor Roads, weekdays noon to 2:30 p.m.; 6 to 8:30 p.m. All day weekends. 609-457-8780.


Las Lomas

If ever a restaurant was a crossroads for Hammonton's Mexican and American communities, Las Lomas would be it. The building beside the railroad tracks is itself a metaphor for the town's cultural shift, the shell of a vintage 1940s Kullman diner now gone Mexican, its porthole windows framed with fiesta purple, its counter seats now in view of a vertical spit of al pastor, a turning stacked pork marinated in pineapple, guajillo, and achiote, sizzling "al trompo" in the kitchen. Since it opened three years ago, Las Lomas has drawn a predominantly American clientele. But that doesn't mean the cuisine isn't genuine. The fresh-from-the-grill concept is inspired by the family's Northern Mex Durango roots. The traditional burritos are rolled in house-made flour tortillas. The chicken enchiladas tucked inside corn tortillas wear a bright-red sauce that sparks with guajillo heat. But it is the tilapia al Norteño that's the showstopper here, the fish arriving inside a steam-filled pillow of foil. Poke it open and - poof! - the aromas of fish-steeped and bay-scented tomato-chile sauce waft across the table.

Las Lomas, 8 Railroad Ave., 609-567-3001.


La Rosa de Oro

Just across the NJ Transit tracks from Las Lomas sits the weathered white-brick facade of La Rosa de Oro, a modest luncheonette that is decidedly not courting the gringo audience. How else to explain the plate of roasted jalapeños set beside the toothpicks and breath mints at the register? A little Spanish certainly helps when ordering at the counter. But really, all that's required is a craving for true Mexican soul food, from cheese-stuffed gorditas to red posole soup, elotes corn-on-a-stick, fried whole tilapia (mojarra frita), and "rico menudo," the spicy tripe stew.

The innards for that menudo were sadly still being scraped and prepped in the open kitchen when I showed up and met grandmotherly Rosa Lopez Calderon, who cooks at this nook for her son, owner Arnulfo Eloy Garcia Lopez, who opened two years ago. So instead, I took a platter of some of the best tamales I've ever eaten, the husk-steamed corn masa patties threaded with tender chicken and the snap of potent green chilies. As if I still needed convincing, Rosa made sure to include one of those fiery roasted jalapeños in my take-out box, adding in Spanish: "These make it taste good!"

La Rosa de Oro, 7 N. Egg Harbor Rd., 609-704-0552.


Fiesta Mexicana

Open since 1999, Noe Castaneda's Fiesta Mexicana is the splashy pioneer of Hammonton's Mexican restaurant scene, its polished pink stucco ranchera facade now trimmed by a trickling fountain and neon sombrero. It is also the most mainstream, as if the life-size cutouts of Corona-branded mariachis at the door weren't clue enough.

The salsas are thin. The margaritas taste prefab. And I've had better nachos at a sports stadium than the dry crumbles of beef served over less-than-fresh chips here. But beneath the somewhat soulless Tex-Mex veneer of frayed rice, gloppy frijoles, and low-grade shredded cheese, we found some worthy surprises - crispy empanadas stuffed with spicy chicken; a whole fish "Veracruzana" slathered in a strangely thick-but-tasty dark glaze dotted with olives; and two bowls of soup that were among the favorite flavors from my Hammonton journey. The first was a special of green pozole, a simple chicken and puffy hominy corn stew tarted-up with spicy salsa verde. The frijoles charros, meanwhile, were worth the extra long wait: fresh whole pinto beans stewed with chorizo and chunky bacon, a bowl of true Mexican soul that confounded my first impressions.

Which Fiesta Mexicana will you find?

Fiesta Mexicana, 327 12th St., 609-704-1611; fiestamexicana-nj.com


Tacos y Tortas La Carreta

Those in quest of more authentic fare are no doubt in line across 12th Street, where Agustin and Marilu Salvana's truck parks in the shadow of Hammonton's water tower. Hailing from Querétaro just north of Mexico City, Agustin, who runs the warehouse for Massarelli's lawn ornaments, generally leaves the truck under Marilu's guidance during the day (while he serves at night). And while I did not find the flavors quite as compelling as Tacos al Carbon (the lengua, for example, was extremely bland), the fresh-made quesadillas and overstuffed grilled torta sandwiches were flying out the window. The best single reason to visit La Carreta, though, is for a taste of its sopes, the hand-shaped masa dough rounds layered with creamy beans and various toppings. The meats themselves were good, especially the al pastor, and the cuminy chorizo. But it is the texture I still dream of, the fluffy softness of those pinched masa ridges rising over an earthy corn base that snaps with a griddled crisp.

Tacos y Tortas La Carreta truck, 306 12th St., 609-561-4066; weekdays 1 to 2 p.m., 4:30-7:30 p.m.; weekends, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.

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