It takes a certain confidence to open up a Mexican restaurant in a dry town. Something about the spicy food just pairs perfectly with an ice cold cerveza or a well-made margarita.
But at El Guacamole, you will find no booze of any kind to wash down your burritos, because they chose to open up shop in Ocean City, the municipal equivalent of the lame parents who come home to bust up the high school party. But that’s OK, because the dip at this particular party is so damn good, you won’t even notice the lack of booze. Try the cucumber water instead. It’s refreshing, and like the rest of the menu, it’s made in-house by Eric Herrera.
Herrera is the man behind El Guacamole, a traditional Mexican restaurant that opened its doors here just before Labor Day. If the name sounds familiar it’s because this is the second outpost for this south-of-the-border-themed spot, the original location being in Millville. Herrera’s success there inspired him to look for a second space. For him and his wife Paulina Reyna, Ocean City felt like a good fit.
“My family (and I), we come here all the time and we bring the kids. It’s a really good town. I wanted to open up another restaurant so I started looking here,” he says.
Though he was searching, it took a happy accident for Herrera to stumble upon this location.
“We were looking in this area for almost a year, but all the places we saw were too small. Then one day I was in town with my family and my son wanted a donut. We were driving to the bakery (next door) to get him one and my wife happened to see the for rent sign in the window,” he remembers.
They snapped up the space.
The first thing you will notice upon entering El Guacamole is the paint job. Blasting bold shades of orange and cobalt blue dominate the space. The room itself is a near perfect square, bisected by a wall that breaks up the simplicity of it. Mexican artwork is displayed as per tradition at a spot such as this. Outside a handful of umbrella-shaded tables offer al fresco dining.
As with many Mexican establishments, the vibe is casual, yet not overtly so. While you might not get thrown out for coming in off the beach in a bathing suit and flip flops, you’d probably be better off showering first. One could easily take a date here and not seem ridiculous for doing so. Boardwalk nachos this is not.
Speaking of nachos, the menu at El Guacamole covers much ground, highlighting just about every bit of popular Mexican cuisine, from tacos to tortas and all points in between.
Appetizers include familiar favorites such as guacamole, made tableside and served with homemade tortilla chips; and nachos, which are offered in both chicken and steak varieties. More adventurous eaters would be wise to dig deeper though and try the Elote (Mexican street corn covered in mayo with queso blanco and chili powder); or Queso Fundido (melted Mexican cheese layered with chorizo and jalapenos).
Soups are not a common sight on most Mexican menus, however El Guac has two of them, the chicken-based sopa de pollo with rice potatoes, carrots and cilantro or the more hearty crema de cangrejo, a crab bisque accented with mushrooms, spinach and artichoke. Lighter fare is abundant as well with the standout being a mango salad utilizing arugula, queso fresco topped with a house made jalapeno vinaigrette.
And those jalapenos didn’t just come in from a truck.
“I live in Vineland and there are a lot of farms there. I got to know many of the farmers and I go and pick out my ingredients fresh every day. The vegetables I use are picked by me,” Herrera says with pride.
Another thing he is behind are the recipes themselves. Herrera — a native of Mexico who has been in this country for more than 20 years — bases his recipes on what he learned growing up.
“I learned from my mom — she taught me a lot. I always liked to cook,” he says.
One bite of the chimichangas will serve as proof enough that Herrera was taught well, as they are bursting with flavor and the perfect hint of spice. Taco options transcend the normal chicken and steak options, offering roasted pork, chorizo and tinga de pollo — a stewed pulled chicken with chipotle salsa.
Perhaps the most visually stunning item on the menu is the El Molcajete, an impressive mix of shrimp, steak, chorizo, grilled chicken, cactus, fried cheese and chiles served with rice beans and tortillas in a large Mexican version of a brick and mortar.
And though the menu may never feature margaritas, don’t sleep on the non-alcoholic beverages that they do offer, as the list is far more interesting than what you will find at a normal restaurant in America. Order up a horchata (rice water), pepino (cucumber water) or any number of tasty Jarritos Mexican sodas for a perfect accompaniment to your meal. Coffee drinkers would be wise to try the café de olla, a Mexican coffee with cinnamon and brown sugar.