HAMMONTON - A multicolored corner building at Bellevue Avenue and South Egg Harbor Road, a symbol of a revitalized downtown that has gained national attention, is the new home of a Mexican restaurant that has gotten its share of media kudos.
El Mariachi Loco will begin serving food 4 p.m. Wednesday in the 109-year-old building at 101 Bellevue Ave., located where the train tracks cross the town's main street, during a grand opening complete with a mariachi band from New York City.
The building was painstakingly renovated about 12 years ago by owner Gene Gullo, and has become, as Gullo predicted while finishing the work, the town's most photographed structure. It is the first image that pops up in a Google search for Hammonton, and photos of it have often been used in marketing materials.
When it was constructed in 1905, it had an elaborate facade similar to that of today. It housed a drug store and ice cream parlor downstairs and law offices upstairs, Gullo said.
Over a century, however, various owners changed its facade, including another drug store and a discount store.
"Everything from the roof line up was gone when I got it," Gullo said. "Everything from the windows down was gone. I had to replicate everything."
He said he had some of the carvings sculpted and molded, using fiberglass. He used old photos for a guide, but "some parts I had to improvise because there was nothing available."
The restaurant, which serves Central Mexican cuisine, is moving from 17 12th St., a block out of downtown, and will now have 85 seats compared to 58 in its previous location, owner Robert Diaz said.
"More people kept coming in. We needed more space," said Diaz, 31, whose family hails from central Mexico and who opened his first restaurant in Hammonton in 2010.
So when clothing boutique Gabrielle & Co. left a few months ago, Diaz started pursuing a move to the high-profile location, which housed a Mexican grocery before the boutique.
"We're very excited for him. He was on it right away, believe me," said MainStreet Hammonton Executive Director Cassie Iacovelli.
Diaz is also taking a smaller space used by Yoga Nine for about a year. The studio moved out Jan. 1, said Gullo.
About 21 percent of Hammonton residents are Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. Census bureau data, compared to 17.7 percent statewide. And with a strong agricultural community - many of the farm laborers who work here are from Mexico - the town has become a mecca for Mexican food.
The restaurant got a huge shot in the arm in September 2012 when Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Critic Craig LaBan gave it high marks for authenticity in an article about it and five other Mexican restaurants in Hammonton. LaBan called El Mariachi Loco his favorite of the six.
Diaz said he's keeping his older menu, based on central Mexican recipes, and adding more vegetarian dishes, specials, kids' meals and desserts. His regional cooking generally uses homemade corn tortillas rather than flour, he said.
Diaz, previously a chef for Philadelphia area restaurants, country clubs and hotels, said El Mariachi will now be open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekends. Call 609-270-7224.
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