The atmosphere at Mambo Cafe, a new Central American-themed eatery at the corner of South Main Street and Decatur Avenue in Pleasantville, is one of comfort and relaxation.
Owner Jose Marin often stands by the door, personally greeting each customer with a handshake and a smile. The restaurant is dominated by painted vibrant shades of green, orange and pink, on its walls and its modern, half-moon shaped booths. Upbeat Caribbean tunes pipe softly through overhead speakers, and atop each table sits a fresh flower in a cylindrical glass vase.
In coming up with the decor of the restaurant, the peppy Marin said he needed only look to himself.
"That's what I am. I like colors; I'm happy all the time," said Marin, who lives in Atlantic City. "I love music. I love talking to people. So when I designed it, you see the colors and everything. You see the flowers on the wall over there, this is what I am."
Marin, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia in 1985, has been a business owner since 1999, when he opened his first La Cosecha Hispanic supermarket in Atlantic City. In 2005, he expanded to Pleasantville, opening his second supermarket in the building that Mambo now occupies.
Mambo has been in the works since 2010, when Marin moved La Cosecha to a larger spot across the street. Not wanting to take business tenants in an uncertain economy, Marin – who waited tables when he was younger and is himself a cook, if only for his family – decided to open a restaurant.
Mambo Cafe offers a split dining experience: on one side, it's a traditional cafe, serving coffees, soups salads and an extensive array of pastries and baked goods. On the other side of a long divider is a sit-down restaurant, which features specialties from Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador and other countries.
The restaurant has hardly been open a week, and already it's drawing regulars. Jose Chey and Luis Nolasco stopped by Mambo for lunch April 4 and, pleased with their meal, came back the following day. Chey, who lamented that authenticity is too often lost to the deep fryer in the city's other ethnic restaurants, said Mambo fills a niche for the area's Hispanic community.
"In this area, we've been waiting for a place like this for a very long time," Chey said.
On the cafe side, Mambo's big draws are its wide variety of coffees and freshly baked pastries which, at $2 and less, are a welcome contrast to boutique bakeries and coffee shops whose goods can cost as much as a small meal.
In the dining room, the big seller has so far been bandeja Paisa, a meat-heavy specialty platter of Marin's hometown of Medellin, Colombia, that features steak, Colombian sausage, pork, refried beans and an egg.
The dishes at Mambo are as affordable as they are authentic, and full-sized dinner plates run about $10 to $15. Nolasco, who along with Chey hails from the Dominican Republic, said he enjoys Mambo because it offers a taste of home without breaking the bank.
"You feel like you're in a gourmet restaurant without the prices, and the food is like what Mom used to make," Nolasco said. "It's comfort food."
In a year's time, Marin hopes to have the restaurant's upstairs open as a banquet hall - there are few such facilities outside the city, he said, and existing ones are expensive - but for now, he's focusing on building a positive customer experience in its downstairs.
Marin has a history of business succes, and word of mouth about is Mambo spreading. He admits that starting a new business is an uncertain thing, but should he be able to deliver a high quality product, he's confident he will succeed.
"I'm both nervous and optimistic, because the economy is bad," Marin said. "But people are always looking for a good place to eat."
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