Roberto Marroquin, chef and owner of Cinco de Mayo restaurant, grew up eating a lot of seafood. That might be because he comes from an area in Mexico called Oaxaca which has a long coastline along the Pacific Ocean.
So it should be no surprise to anyone that his menu features a fair amount of seafood selections since that is his comfort food and since his restaurant is so close to the Atlantic Ocean. He remembers eating plenty of fin fish, clams, shrimp and oysters at the family dinner table.
“Seafood is the kind of food my family had,” Marroquin says.
Fortunately for his customers, accessing fresh seafood is not a problem in South Jersey. Even things you might not find on a menu in Oaxaca, such as fish tacos, Marroquin offers it at his Ocean City restaurant because his customers demand it.
Marroquin, 44, came to the United States looking for work and spent years in food and beverage at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City. Later, Marroquin opened a pizza shop in Ventnor called Four Brothers. Since he bought the name from the previous owners, he has heard all of the jokes about being the Mexican brother who was running an Italian restaurant. He wasn’t fazed a bit.
Although Marroquin always liked both cooking and eating, he says that back home, cooking was always considered the work that only women would take on, certainly in the home, but even in professional restaurants it was the women who did the actual cooking.
In America, Marroquin found kitchen work served up on a more equal basis. At Cinco de Mayo, Marroquin works side-by-side with his wife, Rosaura, 35, who does much of the cooking, and his daughter Michelle, 15, who works in the front of the house as a waitress when not attending school.
Open for two years, Marroquin has learned that in an American family restaurant, “Everyone does everything,” in order to make the business work.
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated differently at home in Mexico than it is in the United States. Many people believe that Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day, something like our own Fourth of July. That event is actually celebrated on Sept. 16.
Cinco de Mayo recognizes the Battle of Puebla, when a group of poorly equipped Mexican soldiers, outnumbered two to one, defeated the French army forces near the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. Marroquin says that at home the real celebration takes place in schools and that towns celebrate with parades. In the U.S., the day is remembered in bars and restaurants.
On the menu at Cinco de Mayo is a dish called Cinco de Mayo ($13.95) consisting of five strips of grilled steak and five pieces of grilled shrimp over salad, rice and beans, with salsa on the side.
“We did it because May is the fifth month and the day is the fifth day,” Marroquin says. Many of the dishes on the Cinco de Mayo menu are recognizable — nachos, tacos, burritos and quesadillas all make an appearance on the menu, in various combinations.
American customers sometimes unfamiliar with the Mexican menu will ask for a recommendation of what to order. Marroquin usually suggests something like green enchiladas ($8.95) topped with fresh cheese, or queso fresco, and served with rice or beans.
When customers are concerned about Mexican food being too spicy, he might suggest chilies rellenos ($9.95), mild poblano peppers with cheese inside, batter-dipped then fried and served with tomato sauce.
Some popular items are a little more unusual, like the beef tongue tacos ($2.75 each) and other dishes are more traditional, such as tlayudas ($9.95) originally from Oaxaca, made with a large corn tortilla with red salsa, white cabbage, Oaxacan cheese, avocado, refried beans and a choice of chicken, beef or the Mexican sausage called chorizo.
“There are too many traditional dishes to put them all on the menu,” Marroquin says.
Specials on the weekend include tamales with a green salsa, which are corn husks stuffed with chicken and corn masa, served with salsa verde and mole. The Oaxacan version of mole is red instead of brown and a little spicy because it uses costeno rojo chiles, a hot dried chile, with a heat level similar to the chipotle pepper.
Different towns have different styles of cooking and different levels of spiciness and heat in their traditional dishes. Marroquin proudly notes that everything at Cinco de Mayo is made fresh from scratch, nothing frozen.
The rice-based drink horchata and the tamarindo, made from tamarind pods, are some of Cinco de Mayo’s homemade dishes. Desserts such as flan and bunuelos, crispy fried flour tortillas with cinnamon, sugar, and honey, are made in the kitchen, too.
“Salsa is salsa, pico de gallo is pico de gallo,” Marroquin says when describing the difference between the smooth, cooked, tomato sauce called salsa, and the chunky tomato, onion and jalapeno sauce called pico de gallo. Chips and salsa go to every table when the customer arrives, with the warning to be careful with the red sauce. “That’s the first thing they taste,” Marroquin says.
Marroquin likes the smaller size of his restaurant, believing it allows him to give the customers better service. It is not unusual to find the busy dining room filled with families of all sizes.
“We like to do tasty food and we care that people are happy, so the customers will come back,” Marroquin says.
Celebrating Cinco de Mayo at the shore
Landis MarketPlace, 631 E. Landis Avenue, Vineland, 856-213-6002, www.landismarketplace.com. — A celebration of Cinco de Mayo has been organized by Los Lomas Fresh Mexican Grille. Noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 5: Expect traditional Mexican folklore, music, dancing and foods such as grilled tacos, quesadillas and melted chicken and cheese tortilla shells. A beer garden will feature Mexican and traditional Louisiana drinks. A mariachi band will play and the event will feature a clown and face painting.
Luciano’s Fresh Market at Landis MarketPlace will be featuring an all-you-can-east seafood boil, featuring shrimp, crabs, clams, corn, potatoes, and sausage. Tickets for the seafood boil are $25. Call 609-970-7653.
Wildwood Cinco de Mayo Block Party, Pacific Avenue between Spicer and Lincoln avenues, Wildwood, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday,May 5. Call 609-729-6500. — Vendors, face painters, balloon animals, bounce house for Autism Speaks, noon to 6 p.m. Zumba/Salsa 1:45 to 2:45 p.m. and 7:15 to 8:15 p.m. Live music: Stellar Mojo, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 12:45 to 1:45 p.m.; Animal House 3:15 to 5 p.m. and 6:10 to 7 p.m.; Travado Group 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Isabella’s, 4 S. Portland Avenue, Ventnor, 609-822-2477 — Cinco de Mayo buffet served 4 to 10 p.m. Live music.
Bellview Winery, 150 Atlantic St., Landisville, 856-697-7172 — Enjoy authentic food from Sierra Juarez in Vineland. Festivities take place 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 5, and Sunday, May 6. $5 admission includes tours, tasting and souvenir wine glass.