At Pleasantville's Mi Jacalito, customers can get zesty Mexican food and a taste of Honduran cuisine and pay only about $30 for two people.
Manager Maria Lopez's family owns Mi Jacalito, which opened at 375 S. Main St., the former location of El Rancho, in July. There they whip up Mexican and Honduran dishes for no more than $12 per entree.
"One of the things my mother always thought when she wanted to get back in business was, since the economy's bad, she wanted to provide nice family cuisine at reasonable prices," says Lopez, 24.
At Mi Jacalito, which means 'my little hut' in Spanish, cooking runs in the family.
"My husband does the cooking, my father does the prepping and my mother has the recipes," Lopez says.
Her parents, Antonio and Victorina, are from Mexico and used to help run Cancun in Atlantic City, which closed this year. Before that, Antonio cooked at JoJo's Italian Grille in the city for 13 years.
"My mom had been trying to get back into business, so she started looking for places," Lopez says.
Her husband, Francisco Medina, is from Honduras. He's responsible for Mi Jacalito's Honduran flavor, which permeates about half its menu.
Diners would be hard-pressed to find Honduran cuisine elsewhere in South Jersey. But Mi Jacalito's Mexican menu offerings are distinct in the area as well.
"Most of the restaurants in the area that are Mexican are from Oaxaca," Lopez says. "My mother is from Puebla. So the spices and the presentation are a little bit different."
That translates to bigger tamales, extra-stuffed quesadillas that look like empanadas and a different spice rack.
Some dishes at Mi Jacalito, such as enchiladas ($8) and burritos ($7), are familiar to the American palate. Others, such as barbacoa de res ($9) - spiced beef with a choice of spaghetti or rice on the side - appeal to purists and the more adventurous.
"It's like Mexican spaghetti," Lopez says of her favorite dish. "I had a customer who's Italian, who described it as macaroni and cheese. It's made with all Mexican ingredients - sour cream and cheese and Mexican sauce."
Although it isn't on the menu, Lopez says the chefs are happy to make the dish with lamb upon request.
"When people come in, we give them the option," she says. The same goes for chicken nuggets for little diners and vegtarians can ask for beans instead of beef in most dishes.
Mi Jacalito's Mexican menu also features mole poblano, which is made in a way unique to Puebla. The origin of mole poblano is in dispute - three Mexican states, including Oaxaca and Puebla, claim ownership - but the dish is very popular in Puebla, where local residents are called Poblanos. The chicken with mole is accompanied by rice and beans and sells for $8.50.
For those new to Honduran cuisine, Lopez recommends the platanos maduros con carne ($6) - plantains filled with ground beef, cabbage, sour cream, salsa and cheese.
Bananas, Lopez says, are a staple of Honduran cuisine. They're part of several other recipes quickly becoming Mi Jacalito signatures, such as the bandeja catracha ($12) - Honduran-style beef, fried chicken, white rice, cabbage salad, chimol (a Salvadoran radish salsa), green banana slices and avocado.
Mi Jacalito serves breakfast all day, including huevos rancheros ($5), and tamales ($5) with chile sauce, mole or salsa.
Most customers leave with full stomach and - as Victorina Lopez hoped - only $12 poorer than when they arrived.
Soups and sweets
Manager Maria Lopez says many people come in just to buy soups and desserts, which are homemade on the premises. Soups include mole de pansa, sopa de pollo and caldo de res ($5.50 to $7). Desserts include flan, tres leches and rice pudding ($2 to $2.50).
Mi Jacalito is responsive to diners' needs. Vegetarians can request beans instead of meat in most dishes. "We always work to our customer's preference," Lopez says. "If there's something you'd like to try that we don't have, we can do that. It's not just a standard menu."
Take the taste test
Try a Coca-Cola imported from Mexico, where the "secret formula" includes sugar instead of corn syrup, as it does in the U.S., and add your own opinion to the great debate. Can you taste the difference?