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Lovers of Latin Cuisine Rejoice

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College campus food evolved long ago beyond pizza and nachos. Over the last several years, Newark’s Main Street—anchored by stalwarts like Caffé Gelato and newbies like Taverna—blossomed into a classier, more metropolitan sort of place, where you’ll now find a bánh mì joint, wheatgrass shooters, samosas and Lagunitas brown-sugar ale (right beside the $3 Miller Lites at the Stone Balloon). The seafood-focused Del Pez Sea Mex —the latest in Javier Acuna’s growing empire—serves as a neat reflection of today’s modern, urbane Main Street. The rising restaurateur behind Santa Fe Mexican Grill and Bar (Newark and Wilmington) has spent the better part of 12 years refining and uplifting our expectations of Latin cuisine. And despite a growing Hispanic population, forward-thinking Latin cuisine is still sorely under-represented in Delaware.


Photographs by Steve Legato
 

Fried organic rainbow trout with yucca smash. 

A classic oro margarita.

Spicy chorizo sausage with chicken breast.

In that sense, Del Pez advances the conversation enormously. Imagine: puffed corn nuts replacing chips and salsa, tacos wrapped in purple pickled cabbage leaves and spicy chorizo empanadas served with fruit salad. It’s the brave new world for Latin food at Del Pez, where dishes are simply lighter, more colorful and healthier than the standard over-starched Tex-Mex fare to which we’re so accustomed. Santa Fe Wilmington marked a step forward in scope and ambition when it opened in 2010. Del Pez is the next logical progression, where staid recipes are shucked in favor of color, creativity and adroit culinary fusion. There are brightly hued blackened-swordfish tacos, where tender fish mixes with slices of mango, carrot, red peppers and avocado, and where white beech mushrooms and agave-chile salsa are the condiments de rigueur.

Then there’s Del Pez’s instant conversation starter: the Rubik’s Cube salad, where matching blocks of roasted beats, Oaxaca cheese, grilled squash, pickled radishes, poached pears, kiwis and plums are transformed into everyone’s favorite ’80s icon, with a splash of tomato-basil emulsion thrown in for good measure. What clever zaps of creativity. And the juices seemed to flow from the kitchen to the bar—where a flavorful white sangria was bolstered by spinach, kale, green apples and sage liqueur, and its red counterpart was spiked with grilled corn and roasted strawberries. The lively menu was paired with excellent, enthusiastic service. Some dishes played better on paper than in execution. Cabbage-leaf taco shells furnished a fresh, crunchy bite, but they also obscured the good stuff happening inside the tacos, and ostensibly washed away the coat of seasoning on the swordfish. Elsewhere, farm-raised pork belly arrived with a perfectly crisp exterior, but tough and chewy everything else.

A stronger sense of balance emerged in addictive fried calamari tacos, whose pickled red cabbage and green apple slices undercut the squid with tartness and bite, while chunky jalapeño aioli lent a top note of acid. Cumin perfumed a quinoa-spinach salad, as grilled corn, black beans, citrus and Oaxaca cheese smoothed the edges. When clever ideas merged with solid execution, Del Pez exhibited some truly great moments. I loved the incendiary and dark barbecue sauce over an Atlantic salmon fillet. Rich and spicy, spiked with mango and habañero peppers, the sauce was reminiscent of classic Mexican mole, making it a perfect foil for roasted salmon. The dish was also awash in fragrant flavors with roasted fingerlings, cipollini onions, turmeric-fried onions and mango-tomatillo oil. Pan-seared scallops enjoyed a similar sense of harmony. Its bacon, fried yucca straws and grilled Brussels sprouts accompaniments came together above another deeply seasoned sauce—a quirky reduction that saw chipotle peppers, raisins and Coca-Cola combine into a sweet, fiery lacquer.

Inside Del Pez—a warm and inviting space where wooden wallboards and decorative splashes of aqua-blue light emit a relaxing sense of cool—hallmarks of Hakuna Hospitality round out the menu. Subtle twists to recognizable blueprints are what made Santa Fe Wilmington such an intriguing place. At Del Pez, it takes the form of sun-dried tomatoes and roasted serrano peppers that get whipped into the empanada dough, or flavorful chipotle rémoulade that adds an air of richness to crabmeat quesadillas. The flourishes couldn’t quite save a Del Pez crab cake, whose overly flaky insides failed to harness the natural sweetness of the crab.

But composure was quickly regained by dessert, when dark-chocolate espresso crème brûlée dripped its lusciousness and fair-trade organic Mexican coffee pop onto the spoon, and the sweet-and-salty toffee crunch of toasted pumpkin seeds worked their magic over Nutella-filled layer cake. Colombian-born Acuna, who worked his way up the restaurant ladder, has all the makings of a world conqueror. He has plenty of competition in downtown Newark. But Del Pez is a smartly crafted restaurant, one that combines facets of the locavore, craft cocktail and super-food trends, while offering students and other patrons a recognizable product and reasonable price points. That’s a whole lot of utility packed into one restaurant. And yes, dude, it even has nachos. Visit www.hakunahospitalitygroup.com.

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