Roberto Diaz almost didn't relocate his restaurant El Mariachi Loco to the corner of Bellevue Avenue and South Egg Harbor Road in Hammonton. The space, on the first floor of an ornate and elaborately painted 110-year-old building, the most photographed building in town, had been vacant for a while, but the owner was taking his time deciding who to rent it to.
“The owner wasn’t too sure he’d give it to us,” Diaz says. “He had a lot of interest in the space. I waited two months until he finally called. And we did it. It was empty when I got it. I built an all-new kitchen, everything. Whatever is there, I built it. I made it looked nice.”
The restaurant is technically El Nuevo Mariachi Loco (the NEW crazy musician), because Diaz moved the original El Mariachi Loco, located just a block away, to this spot only one year ago. The new space is bright and airy with cheery, yellow walls that contrast with the fierce pictures of impassioned Aztec and Mayan warriors hanging on them. The windows are adorned with images of Kokopelli, the hump-backed flute player who is more commonly known as a symbol of fertility, but also represents a musical spirit.
The original El Mariachi Loco, which Diaz had for four years, was a much smaller space.
“People liked it,” he says. “And it kept growing. We started having too many customers for the space. It was our customers who encouraged us to open a bigger spot. They said if I moved, they’d move with me. I said OK.”
Diaz, who went to culinary school in Philadelphia and worked as a banquet chef at numerous country clubs, is not only the owner, but head chef. His goal for his own place was to create “real, good, authentic Mexican food.”
And he has.
At the moment you are seated for dinner, you are brought out warm, homemade chips with three different dips: chipotle, salsa verde and bean. What’s missing? Salsa.
“I don’t want to give the customer just water,” says Diaz of the more common chip accompaniment. “I want them to have a snack. That’s the way we serve it. It works.”
The menu is extensive and can be a bit overwhelming, particularly if you are a novice to Mexican food. But ask any of Diaz’s customers who come locally or from as far as Philly, North Jersey, Delaware and the shore, and they’ll say you can’t go wrong with any item.
Of course they have fajitas, burritos and quesadillas, but when dining here, do yourself a favor and go for something slightly more exotic.
Tamales, beautifully served in banana leaves, can include anything from queso (cheese) and jalapenos to chicken with a mole sauce (an unsweetened chocolate sauce) to chicken with salsa verde (green sauce). Try one or get a platter with all three.
A newer menu item is the enchiladas stuffed with spinach, chicken and cheese served with a light, poblano cream sauce, which makes it a different way to enjoy this popular dish.
Mar y tierra (surf and turf, $19.50) includes a slice of ribeye steak, smoked pork chops, grilled chicken, shrimp, mussels, rice, pico de gallo and guacamole. The meat and poultry are cut thinly so they tend to be a bit on the drier side, but they are delightfully seasoned and the fresh and delicious guacamole is a nice extra.
Paella ($19), known more for being a Spanish dish, is a scrumptious combination of seafood and rice.
Chiles rellenos de queso ($13), a cheese-stuffed poblano pepper swimming in a tasty Mexican tomato sauce, is a hot item here — literally and figuratively.
But it’s their mole poblano ($13) — chicken on the bone, rice and beans — that is their most popular dish by far. The sauce is comprised of numerous ingredients and is, according to Diaz, very complicated to make. It’s thinner than you might be used to elsewhere and takes three hours of meticulous effort to complete — if it’s done wrong, it can be either too sweet or too spicy. And this sauce needs to be just right.
Vegetarian options can be found here, too, such as pumpkin and mushroom quesadillas ($8.50) and stuffed zucchini ($13). The kids’ menu consists of some Mexican favorites such as tacos ($4) but also includes chicken nuggets with fries ($5.50) and chicken wings ($10).
Wash down your meal with a cool beverage such as their homemade rice water ($2.50) flavored with mango or melon. Or go big with a non-alcoholic pina colada, served in a large and festive pineapple. Need a kick in your colada? Pour in your own rum. Same goes for their virgin margaritas — you can BYOT (bring your own tequila).
If you still have room for dessert after all this, try the flan ($2.50) or better yet, just get a chocolate con leche (hot chocolate, $2.50). It’s warm, rich and sprinkled with cinnamon for extra yumminess.
El Mariachi Loco also serves breakfast and lunch daily, which you can get at any time of the day. And weekends bring live guitar music on Fridays and Sundays and karaoke on Saturday nights. A quick note: make a reservation if planning to dine over the weekend.
Diaz is quite pleased with the way things are going in their new location.
“I think we are doing a good job. If we make a mistake, we fix it. But we try to stay away from mistakes,” he says. “We are working hard for the customers and want to treat them right. We want them to come back again.
“When they leave, they always thank us and say ‘good work.’”
Contact Pamela Dollak: