STAFFORD TOWNSHIP - In a global kitchen where every cuisine is influenced by another, it's hard to say for sure what is and what is not "authentic." Tenampa claims to serve authentic Mexican food, while giving a nod to the American palate and making a short foray into Italian cuisine.
The restaurant sign, in a small strip mall just off the Garden State Parkway in Manahawkin, is not easy to spot and the dining room inside was so dark, we considered striking a match just to see the menu.
A basket of crisp taco chips was accompanied by a small bowl of tomato salsa. But to our taste, it seemed more Italian red gravy than Mexican salsa. The trio of lime, onion and cilantro was needed, but missing. We had hoped for some salsa verde, made with tomatillos.
We were hoping sopa de tortilla ($6.95) would be something like the Aztec soup we have tasted and loved in other area Mexican restaurants. The chicken broth had chunks of carrots and green zucchini, pieces of chicken meat, sliced avocado, crisp tortilla strips and queso fresco. But the broth - the most important part - tasted flat and bland, robbing the soup of the flavorful base needed to bring all the parts together.
Jalapenos rellenos ($6.95) was fresh jalapeno chilies stuffed with cheese then crumbed and deep fried to a crisp. The best part was the creamy chipotle sauce, which was much hotter and spicier than the fried jalapenos themselves, with little chunks of pepper throughout the sauce.
The Taco salad ($16.95) was piled inside a large, crisp flour tortilla bowl. Plenty of iceberg lettuce, guacamole, cheese, pico de gallo, salsa, sour cream, and our choice of grilled beef strips were lightly coated with a creamy cilantro dressing. Together, the ingredients made for a satisfying dish.
Camarones al mojo de ajo ($17.95) was composed of jumbo shrimp sauteed in a creamy white-wine and lemon-butter sauce with diced tomatoes and chopped cilantro. We loved the sauce, with plenty of chopped garlic cooked until mild for plenty of flavor. But the large shrimp alternated between perfectly tender and painfully tough. On the plate was a timbale of yellow rice with green peas and diced carrots along with a spoonful of refried beans.
For dessert we sampled sopapillas ($6.95), fried flour tortilla wedges tossed in brown sugar and honey. They made us think of a Mexican version of crepes Suzette, with the addition of three big scoops of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. My dining companion thought the flan ($5.95) should have been sweeter, but we both were happy with the creamy-yet-light texture of the custard.
Just like other ethnic restaurants, such as sushi joints that no longer add wasabi to some of their traditional items due to local tastes, we felt like Tenampa had toned down some of its dishes. While all Mexican cooking isn't necessarily hot, it is a cuisine where one would expect more cumin and other spices, along with plenty of personality.
Some pastas are used in Mexican cooking, such as fideos, a vermicelli-like noodle used in soup. But one dish - with tubular penne pasta in a blush cream tomato sauce - sounded very Italian, only with the addition of some smokey chipotle peppers. That is fusion that actually sounds good enough to eat.
Tenampa is undergoing some kind of facelift inside; the renovation outlined by bright blue painter's tape. Walls are being repainted in bright red, orange, and gold, all the colors of a tequila sunrise.
A few colorful geckos scurry along the walls and a few shelves contain assorted bric-a-brac with an Our Lady of Guadalupe statue prominently displayed. The waiter's station looked unfinished, but stocked and ready for action.
Simple tables surrounded by metal chairs sat on a half carpet, half white-tile floor.
Two of the servers wore red shirts and the staff was friendly but not very talkative. Service was quick and efficient, but not rushed.
Spanish-language rock and roll played throughout our review meal. But it was an Italian singer, Eros Ramazzotti, who was singing some of the songs. Fusion strikes again.
C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Taste Editor Felicia Compian at email@example.com. Ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.
655 Route 72 East, Manahawkin
Hours: Dinner 4 to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 4 to
10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: appetizers $6.95 to $12.95; entrees $12.95 to $17.95
Our bill for two: $71 plus tip