The Beachcomber

South-of-the-Border Ethnic Food Options on LBI

By DORA DUNN | Jul 14, 2017
Courtesy of: Kevin Sparks

The best way to get to know a stranger is to find out what he or she had for dinner last night. What people eat reveals more about where they come from, the climate, the agricultural landscape and the structure of their families than anything else. Every culture has a stuffed noodle; every culture works magic with potatoes. Who cares whether ravioli predates a wonton or pierogi? There’s no prize for figuring out whether gnocchi or kopytka was the world’s first potato-based gravy delivery device. The rich, fortified clear broth that the French know as consommé is pronounced Pho in Vietnam. People and cultures are more alike than not.

Don’t book an around-the-world trip to explore international cuisine; dine out on Long Beach Island. On a Friday night, sample the Caribbean. On Saturday afternoon, lunch on the Mexican Riviera. Then spend Sunday evening dining with a family from one of the former Spanish colonies in Mexico. Mexican food prepared with Jersey sass and verve is available seven days a week.

When many Americans consider Mexican food, only the street fare comes to mind. Though not much is more satisfying than a well-executed taco or a properly stuffed burrito, Mexican flavors and techniques have more complexity. Kevin Sparks of El Swell has known this for years.

Located across the parking lot from Howard’s Restaurant in Beach Haven Gardens, El Swell is a charming taqueria. The décor is an homage to the Mexican celebration of the Dia de Muertos – the Day of the Dead. This celebration dates from the pre-Colombian culture of Mexico, as people would visit the graves of lamented loved ones, bringing favorite foods and beverages.

Considering Dia de Muertos isn’t celebrated until early November, El Swell is the perfect place to get a jump on the party. Aguas frescas and horchata are prepared daily. Mexican bottled Coca Cola, bottled with cane sugar as opposed to corn syrup, is available as well. Coke bottled in this way has that singular sweet, fizzy tang reminiscent of cola served worldwide in the 1950s.

The palate-cleansing aguas fresca are made with ingredients such as cucumber, lime and mint or pineapple and lime. The horchata is like a milkshake, though with a thinner consistency. Sparks described it aptly as “drinkable rice pudding.”

For years Sparks watched the Mexican cooks at Howard’s prepare dishes a la Mexicana, in the tradition of Mexico. “We put all our love into it,” said Sparks as he described the techniques.

The fish taco is available fried or grilled and served on a flour tortilla with a simple slaw and a wedge of lime. An El Swell taco grilled is, well, swell. The cod was perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, and served so quickly it seemed the fish was still sizzling.

Sparks grew up on Long Beach Island, working at Howard’s, his parents’ restaurant, learning the business from the ground up. Insisting that El Swell “respect the culture,” Sparks said part of his mission is to showcase the range of casual Mexican cuisine to residents, to show a taco is more interesting and certainly better tasting than the ground beef and cheddar cheese versions served in countless middle school cafeterias.

He recommends the shrimp ceviche, the tuna tostada and the camarones for the first-time visitor. Served rare and sesame-crusted with chipotle crema, avocado and pico de gallo, the tostada has cover-girl good looks. El Swell is at 13504 Long Beach Blvd.

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If foreigners wanted to know about American cuisine and visited only McDonald’s, they’d weep for our Sunday dinner table. So, what’s for Sunday dinner in Mexico? For the definitive answer, reserve a table at La Bamba, now in its fourth year. Valentin Madrid along with his wife, Rosa, and 22-year-old son, Oliver, has created a full-service Mexican restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The daily specials are prepared in ways not often seen this side of the border. Fish prepared with Mexican spices and served whole are the main offerings.

The ribeye on the menu is prepared a la Mexicana, topped with chorizo jalapeño, sweet red onions and tomatoes. Served with rice and herbed black beans, it’s proof positive baked potatoes and creamed spinach aren’t required for an outstanding steak experience – just an imaginative cook. The Madrid family is nothing if not inventive.

Valentin and Rosa Madrid came from Puebla, the fourth largest metropolitan area in Mexico and an important Spanish colonial-era city. Initially settling in Carney, Madrid said he missed the food of his native state. After a few visits to Long Beach Island, the Madrids saw it as the perfect place to open a restaurant. What shines are the offerings on the specials menu.

The specials represent the ingredients the Madrids source daily, driving up to two hours one way for specially blended spices from Mexico and the freshest local produce. Oliver Madrid, a recent graduate of the culinary arts program at Hudson Community College, has worked with his father on the line since he was 6 years old. Rosa Madrid is the keeper of the mole sauce.

Cooks in Puebla are known for producing the best-known versions of mole sauce. Mole, pronounced like ole, but with an m in front, is kind of like a mother sauce. When she was asked to reveal her recipe, Rosa Madrid’s warm, sparkling laugh reverberated around the charming 45-seat dining room without revealing the secret.

The Madrids have brought Mexican flavor to local delicacies. Placing second in the 2016 Chowderfest, their clam chowder earned a nod as “Rookie of the Year.” In the nontraditional chowder made with Clamato, Valentin wanted to bring a “touch of Mexican flavor never done at Chowderfest.” It’s on the menu as the special soup on weekends.

The chef’s recommendation for first-time visitors is the Cazuela de Mariscos. Shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, calamari, fish and lobster are stewed in guajillo and tomato broth and served in a clay pot. Sounds like second cousin to the shrimp boils traditional in South Carolina’s low-country cuisine.

La Bamba offers something special for potables as well – house made margarita and piña colada mixes. The house-made cocktail mix and an outstanding menu are waiting at 3200 Long Beach Blvd. in Brant Beach.

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Defining true Caribbean flavors is difficult. Caribbean cuisine is a compilation of the indigenous people’s food and the influence of just about every European colonial power. Just as combining music that’s a little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll makes something else altogether, Caribbean food is an unexpected fusion resulting in something wonderful.

Get a taste of the Caribbean fused with Jersey freshness in Harvey Cedars at Plantation. Since the restaurant opened in 2003, the kitchen has been under the direction of Jeff Alberti. Explaining his management style, Alberti insists his staff participate in menu decisions. He revisits the menu every couple of months, keeping the offerings new, the staff on their toes and the population of Long Beach Island wowed.

Executive Chef Alberti started out like many others in the restaurant business: over at the dishwasher. Scraping dishes and working the machine from the age of 14, Alberti said, “I noticed they were always behind on toast,” so he jumped in to help. He moved up to the line as a short-order breakfast cook before completing his education at Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island.

During breaks from school, Alberti worked in seasonal restaurants and spent years shuttling from Tahoe to Jackson Hole and back to Cape Cod. Long before he signed on at Plantation, his love of Latino and Caribbean flavors led him to sign on as the chef on a private yacht. He spent a couple of years touring the Caribbean, with stops in Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, and squeezed in a sojourn in São Paulo.

He was honing his skills and gaining firsthand understanding of how to make a dining experience unique and complete. The smell of the ocean enhances the experience in the dining room. “Salt air makes the fish taste better,” Alberti asserted. “The whole experience is remembered and shared.”

On a recent afternoon, the New England clam chowder garnished with crispy clam was impressive. The black bean and corn patty melt is satisfying on every level. The Caesar salad at Plantation is garnished with hominy croutons – Alberti’s “favorite pick” as he’s working the line. A convivial bar occupies the first floor, and a banquet space seats up to 85 on the second floor.

Alberti suggests the tuna nachos to start, then the tomato salad fashioned with locally sourced heirloom tomatoes and garnished with watermelon, feta, mint, Saba and marcona almonds. For the entrée, the king of the flat fish, halibut. At Plantation, the halibut is accompanied by kale dumplings and gribiche, a fancy name for a terrific sauce.

Alberti knows how to run a restaurant. He knows how to inspire the people who work for him. He says the off season is for “tinkering with the menu” and supporting the staff as they are “developing great habits.” He’s proud he can “still hold his own on any station” on the line.

Most executive chefs are consumed with paperwork, e.g. ordering supplies, hiring and developing staff, costing the menu, supervising repairs – heck, making repairs. Great cooks develop menu items, tweak flavoring and work to make production more efficient. Exceptional people, such as Alberti, fuse both skills and make it look easy. Plantation awaits at 7908 Long Beach Blvd.

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Some people will throw a party just to celebrate the sunset on a Wednesday. Greg Luker is that kind of person. For years, as he made his living as a picture framer, he cooked for his friends. He likes Mexican food, so his house was the place to gather for tequila and enchiladas, made the way he likes them. “It’s not authentic, it’s just good” is how he describes it.

Seventeen years ago, his friends encouraged him to open a restaurant. As a rule, that’s a bad idea. More things can go wrong than there are shells on a beach. Being a great cook is the least concern. A kick-in-the-pants personality or a flair for entertaining is not enough. Even making the best salsa in three states isn’t enough. Except, in Luker’s case, it apparently is.

Lex Mex is the happy result of ignoring all the rules of restaurant ownership. Located in Ship Bottom at the foot of the Causeway, Lex Mex, as Luker described, is a “cool place” that serves “good whole food” with a relaxed Jimmy Buffett vibe. After tasting his remarkable salsa, people may start wearing special hats in the same way fans of Buffett wear parrot hats.

When Luker isn’t cooking, he’s surfing. The Long Beach Island native wasn’t shooting for authenticity in his cooking, simply for what he likes. He describes his chicken enchilada as “a party.” Lex Mex opens the last weekend in April and shuts down for the season on Columbus Day. In between times, he’s making salsa daily and selling it by the quart. He still works the line with two other “top-notch” cooks, while watching surfing contests on the Apple television in the kitchen.

He isn’t lucky, he’s smart. He describes himself as “very system-oriented,” which is essential for a successful restaurant. His work ethic is sound; he knows what must be done and is relentless in getting it done. Lex Mex offers an interesting interpretation of Mexican food in a welcoming atmosphere.

Get to know international neighbors by finding out how and what they eat. Get to know Island neighbors by supporting these restaurants.

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