By Melissa Lindley
With faded awnings, a buzzing neon “open” sign and bars on the windows, the average person would be a bit hesitant to walk into a restaurant in the heart of downtown Trenton that could easily be mistaken for a criminal coverup. However, the average person was also most likely taught growing up to never judge a book by its cover.
Taqueria El Mariachi is a perfect example of this. El Mariachi specializes in Mexican food that will satisfy anyone’s craving for a taste of Latin America.
I was raised in San Jose, Calif., one of the biggest hubs for Latino populations in Northern California. I grew up spoiled with small, family-owned Mexican restaurants all over the place, so naturally, I wanted to find a little slice of home when I moved to New Jersey. Over the last few months, I’ve been on a mission to find good Mexican food, and a trip to Chipotle just doesn’t cut it for me. So after a good few weeks of Google searches and Yelp! reviews, I finally settled on El Mariachi. You can’t go wrong with a place that has four stars and reviewer-submitted pictures of delicious looking food, right?
I stopped by the restaurant on a Saturday around 6 p.m. When I went inside, I was overwhelmed by the delicious smell of grilled meat and the sound of a radio blaring music in Spanish. I felt right at home.
The dining area is incredibly tiny. There were around six to eight medium-sized tables crammed near the entrance, with the kitchen taking up most of the space.
The best part, while some may not entirely agree, was the fact that nobody spoke English, which certainly added to the authenticity. So there I was, an awkward, suburban white girl with a Coach bag, trying to figure out how I was going to feed myself. Fortunately, my four hazy years of high school Spanish didn’t fail me.
The restaurant’s menu is pretty simple and easy to navigate. They serve typical fare like tacos with your choice of meat or seafood, soups, rice and bean plates, enchiladas, nachos and breakfast plates. Some of the more adventurous things I noticed were tongue tacos and a shrimp, octopus and squid soup. I decided to play it safe that night and order steak tacos and pupusas, which are actually Salvadoran and made with cheese that’s sandwiched between two tortillas. I ordered it to go; it took about 20 minutes for my food to be prepared and cost me around $20. I was taken aback at the price, but when I brought the takeout home, I realized it was totally worth every penny.
The portion sizes are absolutely ridiculous. I wrapped up half of the pupusas, knowing that I had tomorrow’s lunch waiting for me in the fridge. Each taco was about the size of my hand, and there were three of them. The flavor in everything was incredible. The tacos were filled to the brim with tender steak, each loaded with a giant jalapeño, wrapped in a flour tortilla and lightly salted. There were sides of shredded tomatoes and onions, a bag of cut limes and four different types of salsa. I sampled all four and liked the spicy green salsa the best, with a squeeze of lime added.
The pupusas were huge and loaded with cheese. My only complaint was that they were a bit too greasy and salty for my liking and a little rough on my stomach, but they tasted absolutely fantastic. Other than that, I was very impressed.
My experience was exactly what I had in mind. The staff was polite and pleasant, even with a slight language barrier. While I didn’t dine in, I loved the atmosphere. It was very warm and welcoming, and I felt like I was in a family’s home in Mexico rather than a slightly sketchy neighborhood. The food was absolute perfection. Being born and raised on Mexican food for my whole life, I thought had already found the best places to eat at, but this place just might be my new favorite.
I definitely plan to go back soon, and hope that next time I can bring friends along for the ride. While I always joke about not being able to bring all my favorite Jersey staples when I go back to visit family, I take solace in knowing that I can still bring a little bit of my old home to my new home 3,000 miles away.
Taqueria El Mariachi is located on 109 South Olden Avenue in Trenton.
Printed in the 4/5/13 edition.