OCEAN CITY - Red's Jersey Mex Cafe sits back out of the way, in a tiny three-business shopping mall, off the beaten track at 11th and Haven in Ocean City. Built high, up a row of concrete steps, the building is the definition of nondescript.
But inside, something weird happens. You would swear you were sitting in some Mexican beach shack just a few steps from blue water, with a mismatched interior, a large menu of interesting dishes, and a quirky chef wearing shorts and sneakers. The good food would be an unexpected plus.
A house salad composed of lettuce, diced tomato, and thin slices of cucumber was paired with a green dressing so mild it added little to the mix. Jalapeno hot wings (6 pieces, $5.95), on the other hand, offered a spicy little bite of heat. Coated in a jalapeno sauce, the tender wings were served with a cooling ranch dressing as dipping sauce.
A taco salad ($7.95), served in a basket, was a large portion of spiced chicken served over warm refried beans, mixed greens, a blend of cheeses, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole and more of the ranch dressing. My dining companion had enough left over to package up for a quick lunch the next day.
For our entree, we selected a portion of honey-chipotle grilled shrimp ($13.95). Small shrimp were covered with a honey-chipotle BBQ sauce that carried the smokey flavor from both the grill and the chipotle peppers - jalapeno chilis that have been smoked and dried - and served on a bed of lettuce. Also on the plate were flavorful refried beans and rice more like a straight pilaf than the yellow Spanish rice we expected.
At Red's, enchiladas ($11.95) are filled with beef, fire roasted chicken, or slow roasted pork, and covered with a spicy tomato sauce. We chose a combination platter with all three for an extra dollar. We liked the beef and the fire roasted chicken the best, the slow roasted pork seemed a little drier. Diced onion and queso fresco finished the plate, along with black beans and rice.
In addition to such Mexican staples as quesadillas, fajitas, burritos, and tacos with assorted fillings, Red's menu also offers buffalo chicken wraps, crab cake sandwiches, Philly steak wraps, and a classic cheese burger. A kid's menu also offers chicken fingers and French fries, chicken and cheese taquitos, and perros calientes (hot dogs). Beverages include Mexican sodas made from limes or pineapple and Costa Rican coffee served hot or cold.
A kind of popcorn coated cathedral ceiling in gold is offset by peach colored beams, blue highlights, yellow touches, and so much natural sunlight coming through the high windows at Red's, it takes your mind off your view of the parking lot. One mirrored wall tries to make the place feel bigger, but the spiral staircase to an upstairs room blocks out that view. Colored Christmas lights overhead create a festive air. Black and white checkered floor tiles serve as a resting place for assorted tables and chairs - if any of them match, it seems by chance.
One large table had those metal legs and formica top we remembered from the '50s. The white painted chairs at that table are worn from a steady flow of customers through the place. The rest of the decor can best be described as Mexican shabby-chic, with pinata birds, half-dead plants, cacti, and colored photos of Aztec defenders fighting for space on the walls and shelves. Music from a top forty station plays in the dining room. And somehow, it all works together.
You can see into the kitchen where the chef is hard at work on the grill. The chef walks out of the kitchen to deliver a plate on his own, then stops at each table to say hello.
A short-board rests against the wall in one corner, giving the impression it is waiting for the chef to walk it the last few blocks to the waiting waves. Red's Jersey Mex Cafe is one of those places you can only hope to stumble upon on vacation in another country. Why shouldn't we have that same good fortune at home.
Red's Jersey Mex Cafe
11th Street and Haven Avenue, Ocean City
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Liquor license: No
Credit cards: Cash only
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $3.95 to $9.95, entrees, $10.95 to $17.95
Our bill for two: $47 plus tip