Lupe and Delsino Terrones know a good thing when they see it. That doesn’t mean they won’t work hard to make things even better.
In the South Jersey area for more than 20 years, the two former casino workers — both with food and beverage backgrounds at Caesars Atlantic City — purchased the location that now houses Isabella’s Ventnor Café.
When they bought the building 14 years ago, Lupe Terrones wasn’t ready to take over the business yet because of her 5-year-old son. They rented to others for nine years until 2008, when the time seemed right.
“I always wanted to do it,” says Lupe Terrones. “But just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”
The well-known breakfast and lunch place on Portland Avenue had been in operation for more than 55 years under various names and different owners, each adding their own touches to the business.
“I stayed with the breakfast because so many people came here for that since they were little kids,” she says.
Breakfast is a big thing for Isabella’s, especially in the summer when many people come in from Philadelphia and New York.
While the kitchen will do Mexican specials such as huevos rancheros or chilaquiles, the menu has remained mostly American-style breakfast plates because of the strong local following.
The Terrones wanted to add their personal touch to the menu and did so in a bigger way when they instituted Isabella’s at Night in 2010, their Mexican menu based on Lupe Terrones’ upbringing in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The breakfast menu at Isabella’s, called “On the way to the beach,” includes favorite breakfast combinations, including the “Sig-n-egg-ture” series omelets to “egg-strodinary” platters of smoked fish ($11.75); breakfast burritos ($7.25); and Isabella’s Café Benedict ($7.25), which adds spinach to the classic breakfast dish.
The lunch menu, “On the way from the beach,” is served daily from 11 a.m. A full line of salads, sandwiches, wraps, and an 8-ounce black Angus burger ($6.50) with assorted extra toppings are among the favorites.
The dinner menu at Isabella’s at Night is definitely Mexican, inspired by seaside Pacific ocean meals from the Oaxacan cuisine that Lupe Terrones was raised on.
The best part is, everything is made to order.
“If you come in here and order empanadas, it takes a little longer because everything is handmade,” says Lupe Terrones.
Empanadas ($9.95) are filled with chicken or shrimp and wrapped in dough, then deep-fried. Azteca soup ($4.75) is made with a flavorful chicken broth, crispy strips of corn tortillas, sour cream, cheese and avocado. Ensalada de nopales ($9.50) features cactus leaves that are peeled and grilled to make them soft, then sautéed with onions and jalapenos served cold over lettuce with cheese, cilantro, and avocado. Ensalada de pollo ($9.50) is a Caesar salad topped with fresh grilled chicken.
Seafood Mexican-style includes choices such as camarones a la Diabla ($17.95), a spicy shrimp dish; coktel de camarones ($9.95/$10.95) a Mexican shrimp cocktail with avocado, cilantro, tomatoes, onions, and cocktail sauce; and Guachinango a la Veracruzana (market price), a pan-seared, seasoned fish, topped with a spicy red sauce and olives served with beans and rice.
“We make a sauce that makes the tomatoes juicier and put that on top,” says Lupe Terrones.
Vegetarian dishes are popular enough to merit their own section on the menu. Tacos ($8.50), burritos ($9.50) and fajitas ($10.25) all come in a vegetarian version.
“We sell a lot of veggie enchiladas, the combination with the mole and the vegetables is very good,” says Lupe Terrones.
Chile relleno ($17.75), poblano peppers stuffed with Oaxaca cheese, egg battered and fried, are as popular at Isabella’s as they are in Mexico. They stuff theirs, themselves.
“We make our own mole — a very good mole — from my grandmother and my mom,” she says. “We come from a cooking family.”
Desserts won’t disappoint, with flan Neapolitan ($4), a baked sweet custard; platanos con crema ($3.50), with plantains; and pastel de tres leches ($4.50), a kind of cake, all available.
When the Terrones decided to renovate this winter, they ran into a lot of problems, eventually hiring an architect to recosntruct the restaurant from top to bottom. A lot of things needed to be upgraded, including electric service and exhaust fans.
The dining area is completely different, with tiled walls, wooden tables and banquet seating down one wall. The popular counter, which once stretched the length of the restaurant, is now a cozy “L”-shaped corner area, great for coffee and a tasty meal.
The two rooms made into one make the whole place look bigger than before, although the restaurant still seats the same number of patrons.
Lupe Terrones’ brother Ebes Gonzalez remains the chef. He, too, has worked in area restaurants and spent time cooking in a casino restaurant at Resorts Casino Hotel.
Along with great food and new surroundings, Isabella’s Ventnor Café is a comfortable place to dine.
“We are friendly, I love everybody, and I think I don’t let my customers eat because I talk too much,” Lupe Terrones says.