Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chile Relleno with Pork Carnitas from Spicy Cantina, Seaside Heights, NJ

The Boardwalk at Seaside Heights has a reputation as a place for party animals, guidos, steroid freaks, and young ladies with loose morals and a low tolerance for alcohol. So, naturally, you'd go there and climb the stairs from the first floor beach bar and quick pick-up grill to find yourself in....

...a nice, family friendly mexican restaurant with a pleasant view of the beach.

It's unexpected. We've actually had burgers at the grill downstairs by the bar, and wondered where the mexican food was... and only on the way out realized that the "mexican cantina and restaurant" was actually up the stairs on the second floor. I've been to mexican restaurants that are much more authentic than Spicy, but there's a certain charm to the place. The food is respectful of the traditions that inspired it, while still making a nod to the palates of your average Jersey Shore tourist/vacationer.

My entree was a plate of chiles rellenos stuffed with pork carnitas, smothered in a savory red sauce, and a side of rice and beans. A traditional Chile Relleno is stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried- this one was instead stuffed with the sweet candy of the pig, and was not breaded or fried. The poblano chile had a small amount of chile bite to it, but not much. The red sauce was also on the mild side- making it more appropriate to put in front of kids or tourists who don't understand that chiles are supposed to be hot...

Personally, I like my mexican food on the spicy side, but still backed by bold flavors that stand up to the heat. Luckily, there was a nice selection of hot suace at the table - ranging from mild to blazing hot habanero. I went for something moderately hot- a little Cholulu chipotle sauce did the trick, and brought the heat level up to what I felt was right. I liked the slightly non-traditional take on the chile relleno- adding pork and laying out the roasted pepper the way they did made it into a more complete meal- but I would've actually preferred if they did not clean all of the seeds and ribs out of the pepper to give it a little more bite. The dish was good, but it took a little hot sauce to make it all come together.

I mentioned that Spicy was family friendly- specifically, they are kid friendly- surprisingly kid friendly! My youngest was not exactly on his best behavior, but still got smiles and friendly treatment from the wait staff. Each of the kids got and entire goodie bag to keep them busy with a variety of small toys, trinkets, and crayons. A few minutes later, when our chips and salsa arrived (the salsa was actually quite good- with a strong chile bite backed with plenty of tomato and onion flavor)- the wait staff brought over paper chef's toques (chef hats) which kept the kids entertained a little more. The whole meal, the wait staff seemed to be making a conscious attempt at keeping the kids happy, and turning an understanding blind eye to their occasional lapses in behavior and messes. I give their front-of-house staff a lot of credit for catering to the young ones. That's a great recipe for success in a town known for attracting vacationing families.

The family friendliness was a huge plus, but was also ironic... I later found a photo on the restaurant's website showing the entire cast of the infamous "Jersey Shore" reality show eating there- at the table next to the one where we had our meal. So, the guido/party animal element has a home there too. Spicy, like Seaside Heights in general, straddles a line between contradictions- part known  for party / nightlife and infamous misbehavior, and part family style vacation fun spot at the same time. It keeps things interesting at least!

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