Like Italians last century, Latin American immigrants have changed Delaware’s dining scene. Mexican restaurants are as prolific as dollar stores, and local icons such as El Tapatio and La Tonalteca now enjoy the same popularity as Italian stalwarts like Mrs. Robino’s and La Rosa Negra.
A handful of spots, such as Palacio Maya in Hockessin, Mariachi in Rehoboth Beach and Coyote Crossing in West Chester, have elevated Mexican dining from a plastic-sunflower-in-a-Corona-bottle experience to a white tablecloth and linen napkin experience. Their menus also offer more eclectic choices, including plenty of seafood dishes and South American-influenced cuisine.
While we gringos may not be ready to trade our meatballs for menudo (soup made with cow intestines), we are becoming more adventurous. So we need to settle this little matter of authenticity. Almost every Mexican joint claims to keep it real, but authenticity is in the taste buds of the beholder.
“Authentic means it’s homemade,” says Humberto Gomez, owner of El Toro in Wilmington. “The key is the perfect mix of ingredients and when you add those ingredients.”
Paola Demucha, whose family owns Tijuana Taco Shop in Wilmington, says the proof is in the preparation of meats such as tongue and pork. “If it’s not proper, you really notice the difference,” she says. “With Mexican, you have the perfect blend of spices: chile powder, orange citrus, olive oil, tequila, wine, chipotle pepper, any ground pepper and onions, of course.”
Javier Acuna, who owns Santa Fe Mexican Grill in Newark, is calling for a Mexican revolution. He says some local restaurants have trotted out the same menu for 15 years, so he’s challenging competitors to take it to the next level.
“It’s time for a new view toward Latin and Mexican food,” he says. “We need to bring Mexican food back to what it is, and it’s a lot more than tacos and burritos.”
37 N. Dupont Hwy., Selbyville, 436-2750; 4 W. Fenwick Station, Selbyville, 436-4492
Cactus Café resembles owner Manuel Pavon—it is colorful and mucho jovial. Cactus is a place where customers write their names on the wall, then come back to search for their signatures. In his 18th year in operation, Pavon is now serving his brand of Mexican, Spanish and Mediterranean to a second generation of regulars. Cactus Café 54, a sister restaurant on Del. 54, is nine years old. Both places feature the 1-pound steak-lover’s fajita—16 ounces of prime rib strips wrapped in a tortilla with veggies, guacamole and refried beans. Fajitas account for 42 percent of sales at Cactus. Naturally, Pavon infuses the menu with seafood. Order the chicken or beef chimichanga and you get the usual rice, refrieds, sauce, cheese—all topped with crab imperial. He’s also got grouper, Chilean sea bass and paella. The paella takes a while, so call ahead or show up and sip sangria with your host.
102 E. Market St., West Chester, Pa., (610) 429-8900
Cross the border for Southwestern Mexican in an elegant, yet casual atmosphere. The classy rooftop patio is the place to be in summer. Three glass-enclosed fireplaces help to warm during the winter. Owner-chef Carlos Melendez combines classic Mexican cooking with his grandmother’s recipes to create dishes such as Tampiquena—strips of filet mignon served with chicken enchilada, guacamole, refried beans and a poblano pepper sautéed with onions, white wine, herbs and spices and sour cream. Ask for the filet to be blackened. Other Southwest offerings include a grilled mahi mahi topped with a passion fruit-chipotle sauce and served with rice and roasted vegetables. The Ribs al Coyote, barbecued ribs served with glazed pineapple sauce, will make you howl.
208 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-3353
Owners Joe Zuber and Darryl Ciarlante’s interpretation of Mexican fare includes contributions from Puerto Vallarta, where they like to vacation. A favorite restaurant in the Mexican resort inspired the softshell crab enchilada. When it comes to fish, they prefer Barramundi, an Australian species known for its mild, sweet flavor. Shrimp, crab and lobster quesadillas receive a dusting of Old Bay, another Dos Locos twist. Traditional tacos, burritos and chimichangas grace the menu, but the boys get crazy with the fajitas. Choose from sirloin, chicken, shrimp, lobster, vegetable, tuna, scallop or a combination. If the fajitas don’t flip your poncho, try stone grilling—cook any meat but chicken tableside on a heating stone warmed to 750 degrees. Like its food, Dos Locos eschews the typical bright colors from South of the Border in favor of warm tones of cherry and burnt orange. It’s classy but casual.
El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant
550-560 Eden Circle, Eden Hill Shopping Center, Bear, 836-6477; 1700 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 791-9566
El Tapatio wants to share the culture. It’s a place to try out your Spanish, groove to mariachi and catch futból on the tube. The novice friendly menu even includes a glossary. The old Mexican decor, with distressed concrete walls and traditional archways, is reminiscent of an old cantina. The various regions of the homeland are all represented on the menu. Spices such as ancho and guajillo peppers are imported from Mexico, as is the mole. Try the burrito de Lugo—shrimp, chicken, two types of cheese, salsa verde and rice or beans. The 2-foot-long giant burrito serves four. Pollo Tapatio and fajita Tapatias are solid choices. Like most Mexican places worth their weight in refrieds, the margaritas are a hit. But Tapatio offers a nice selection of imported brews, including Pacifico, Corona, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Modelo and Sol.
624 N. Union St., Wilmington, 777-4417
True, this is primarily a takeout place (it has three small tables), but it’s one you need to know about. Owner Humberto Gomez has built a loyal fan base from this diminutive storefront over the past 11 years. The quesadilla relleñas, stuffed with cheese, beef or chicken, are favorites, along with tacos de carnitas: three tacos, chopped pork, pico de gallo, and tomatillo salsa with flour or corn tortillas and beans. By now, everyone knows about the awesome chile relleño. The secret behind Toro’s raging success? “The red hot sauce,” Gomez divulges. “It’s made with Cajun peppers, tomatillo, onions, cilantro, salt, garlic and a lot of love, man.”
3804 Lancaster Pike, Wilmington, 993-0464
If you blink, you’d miss this tiny Mamí-and-Papí owned by Maria and Pedro Canongo. And it’d be your loss. La Poblanita (a woman from the Mexican state of Puebla) packs a powerful punch with authentic cuisine that includes 13 different tortas (sandwiches), seven different tacos and the best quesadillas around. Americans prefer enchiladas poblanos, chile relleños, burritos and fajitas. But Latinos, who make up 60 percent of the clientele, come for the chuletas ahumadas (smoked pork chops) and the mojarra frita (whole fried striped bass). On weekends, Maria whips up posol (corn and pork soup), menudo (a soup made of cow intestines) and three different tamales: jalepeños, peppers and cheese; red sauce and pork; and sweet tamales. The chips and green salsa, made from green tomatillos, cilantro, onions and garlic, are out of this world.
La Quetzalteca Mexican Restaurant
9 Gravel Hill Road, Georgetown, 856-7003; 25 Georgetown Plaza, Georgetown, 854-0218; 700 Washington St., Millsboro, 934-8077
Brothers Gerson and Eddy Guox recently converted the Georgetown Plaza and Millsboro locations into Quetzaltecas, but the Guatemala natives already know what their customers like. After all, they came up in the local La Toltecas before striking out on their own. Eddy says Latinos lean toward the grilled dishes of beef and chicken, while gringos go for burritos, chimichangas and enchiladas. All agree that the Quetzalteca Special—sliced beef, chicken, shrimp and chorizo served with fried onions, pico de gallo, guacamole, rice, beans and tortillas—is tops. If you’re looking for an intimate (and far from fancy) dining experience, try the Gravel Hill location, which opened in July. The Georgetown Plaza venue (formerly called El Vaquero) is brighter and larger. It features a grand mural of a Mexican village by “some guy from Mexico,” says Eddy. La Quetzalteca’s selection of native tequilas—Don Eduardo, Reposado, Hornitos, Sauza and Silver Patron, to name a few—is equally impressive.
2209 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 778-4646; 4015 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 478-9477
These are the last of the local Toltecas, at least in name. The local chain is still owned by the Cedillo family, but the other Delaware locations have been renamed La Tonalteca. They’ve also expanded north of the border into Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York. See next entry.
528 S. Bay Road, Dover, 734-4575; 245 S. Dupont Hwy., Dover, 735-1572; 1000 Midway Drive, Harrington, 398-7644; 203 Newark Shopping Center, Newark, 737-8220; 4578 Highway One, Rehoboth, 644-3994; 1724 W. Newport Pike, Stanton, 636-9484
The Mexican food that many a First Stater was raised on remains an old friend, although the name recently received a tweaking. Burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas and tamales are staples of the 200-dish menu, along with chilaquiles—soft tortilla chips cooked with salsa, chicken and topped with cheese. The location near the Dover Target recently reopened after a fire and was refitted with a new arched entryway with large wooden doors, an outdoor patio, and floor tiles and furniture straight from Mexico. The new look will likely make the margaritas taste even better, if that’s possible.
2110 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 998-3363, 994-4716
At Los Delfines, eponymous dolphins are on the menu—the cover of the menu, that is. Framed photos of Flipper and plastic crabs and lobsters on the ceiling make no secret that this unassuming place is all about seafood. From its seafood salad for two to its tacos, tostadas and empanadas, the fish, shrimp, oyster and octopus are prepared ceviche-style. Entrées include spicy tilapia dishes, fried red snapper and a handful of shrimp dinners, most served with rice or salad and French fries. Whether it’s homemade chips and salsa or the tomatoes, limes, oranges and avocados, everything is fresh, flavorful and reasonably priced. Landlubbers, try the Molcajete, a dish of four different meats, homemade refrieds, green onions and salsa. It costs $26, but serves three. There are plenty of other pork, beef and chicken offerings, and the lunch menu offers traditional burritos and egg dishes.
14 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-0115
Dining on ceviche or an enchilada of shrimp and scallops is more enjoyable when you can see the ocean. Location, just a half block from the boardwalk, is but one of Mariachi’s unique qualities. Mariachi is more than Mexican. Yolanda Pineda, a co-owner from El Salvador, offers a diverse menu of Spanish, Mexican and Latin American cuisine. Masitas de puerco is Cuban-style morsels of pork marinated in criolla sauce and roasted in bitter oranges. Lomo saltado is a Peruvian dish of sautéed strips of prime sirloin with fresh tomatoes, cilantro, red onions, green peppers and a special sauce. The seafood enchilada includes two flour tortillas with shrimp and scallops in white cream sauce covered with melted Monterey Jack cheese. Be sure to order the mussels al Gengibre.
Morelia Mexican Restaurant & Bar
4617 Ogletown Road, Omega Shopping Center, Newark, 369-6888
From the smiling Mariachi statue that greets you at the door to the marionettes that dangle from the ceiling, Morelia is a festive place to get your Mexican on. Let’s start at the bar, which is surrounded by funky painted stools and stocked with 50 different kinds of tequila. As for the food, we turn to Fred Alberer, an aficionado who drives from Claymont at least once a week to enjoy Morelia’s “own little tweak on things.” Alberer recommends the pork chops in mole sauce. Morelia’s mole is made from scratch from 18 different ingredients, including three types of chile peppers, jalapeños, sesame seeds, salt, pepper and, on occasion, chocolate. It takes four hours to cook. The mole alone, Alberer says, will make you cry.
Palacio Maya Bar & Grill
7288 Lancaster Pike, Unit 2B, Hockessin, 239-5590
The cantaloupe walls, fluted molding and oversized decorative urns lend an upscale feel at Palacio Maya. The message on the menu touts Palacio as a place that “takes things a few rungs up the ladder” from Tex-Mex cooking. Indeed, the menu features many dishes not common to its nearby Mexican cousins, including the stuffed pepper in walnut sauce and the Veracruz-style red snapper, a red snapper filet smothered in chiles, onions, tomatoes, bay leaves, capers and olives, all served with rice. The tangy Yucatan-style pork tacos feature pork shoulder marinated in achiote, other spices and the juice of sour oranges, all baked in banana leaves with orange juice, then served on soft corn tortillas and topped with pickled red onions. The spicy-sweet chiles en Nogada is a traditional dish that features a soufflé-battered poblano pepper stuffed with ground pork and beef, cooked with raisins, apples, pears and peaches, then covered with creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds.
Santa Fe Mexican Grille
190 E. Main St., Newark, 369-2500
Surrounded by the University of Delaware’s diverse student body, it makes sense that Santa Fe would offer a variety of international fare. Many of the countries to our south are represented here. The place even feels tropical, with its pastels, Spanish-style paintings and crafts, and a 12-foot palm tree. Try the grilled Mexican crab cake with capers and smoked chipotle remoulade or the golden chimichanga, fried or grilled. The Santa Fe chicken and shrimp features grilled chicken topped with Mexican spiced shrimp in spicy red wine garlic sauce served over Mexican rice. For dessert, homemade crêpes are filled with nutty chocolate and topped with homemade ice cream of such flavors as strawberry cheesecake or Colombian coffee and banana. The bar boasts 35 brands of tequila, 14 different mojitos, and five warm wines mulled with cinnamon and cloves.
Taqueria La Raza
227 N.E. Front St., Milford, 424-3273
Taqueria La Raza has all the hallmarks of an authentic Mexican restaurant—sombreros adorn coral-colored walls, Mexican music plays through overhead speakers and it’s located in a strip mall next to a Latino food store. Owners Jose and Julia Lemus, of Monterey, Mexico, opened their “taco stand” three years ago. Customers, about 70 percent of them Latinos, come for the tacos. (What else?) The fried tilapia is prepared Mexican style, breaded and deep-fried with head and tail attached. The beef steak la Raza with fried onions, peppers, tomatoes and Mexican sausage is another favorite. Jose says it’s secret ingredients that set his food apart. He does reveal that his tortilla machine churns out fresh tortillas daily.
Tijuana Taco Shop
1815 Lancaster Ave., Wilmington, 777-3565
As you enter Tijuana Taco Shop, note the narrow counter to your left. It’s much like you’d find at a Mexican taco stand and a sign that the Demucha family is serious about authenticity. The feel just gets better as you enter the cozy cantina—which is well equipped with Dos Equis on tap and an assortment of tequilas—and finally settle in the dining room at a tile-top table or comfortable booth amid the cheerful sounds of Mariachi music. The fish tacos (grilled or broiled tilapia) and enchiladas with mole are all the rage. New reasons to visit Tijuana include a fajita in a burrito wrap topped with melted cheese, lobster bisque (call ahead to see if it’s available) and the shrimp taco salad.