Mexican food today is a misnomer. Among the tacos and burritos, there’s usually a mix of Tex-Mex, Mexican, Guatemalan and El Salvadorian specialties. And Delaware also boasts restaurants with a distinctive South American flair.
Known for: Throngs of people who wait on the sidewalk up to two hours for a table in summer.
Insider tip: Fish tacos in a puffy taco, guacamole five ways, and bleu cheese/steak quesadillas top the charts, but try the chilies en nogada, roasted poblano peppers stuffed with ground tenderloin, fruits and spices, all topped with a cinnamon-nut sauce.
137 Second St., Lewes, 645-1232
Cabo Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar
Known for: Incorporating Veracruz-inspired dishes into the menu, including grouper with green rice, tomatoes, capers, chilies and zucchini.
Insider tip: Go for anything with smoked pork: pork burritos, pork enchiladas, pork burritos—you get the drift. Chile rellenos are stuffed with cheese and homemade chorizo then dipped in a tempura batter. Take the heat off with one of the small-batch tequilas.
210 Second St., Rehoboth Beach, 226-8226, cabo-restaurant.com
Cactus Café & Luna’s Cactus Cafe
Known for: South and Central American dishes with a little American tossed in for good measure.
Insider tip: Cactus (fajitas, Caesar salad and even in the seven-layer dip) is a fan favorite, as is the sea bass with red pepper butter. Don’t miss the homemade sangria, says owner Manuel Pavon, who’s been in business more than 20 years.
37 N. Dupont Hwy., Selbyville, 436-2750; and Luna’s Cactus Café, West Fenwick Station, No. 4, Del. 54, 436-4492, cactuscafedelaware.com
The Chicken House Charcoal Grill
Known for: Amazingly tender rotisserie chicken.
Insider tip: Start with “papa a la Huancaina,” sliced potatoes topped with a sauce made with yellow pepper, onions, garlic, cheese and milk. You can get chicken fried or a chicken sandwich. But why bother when there’s whole, half or quarter chicken that puts Boston Market to shame? Ask for extra aji, a spicy dipping sauce. A side of rice is fine for two, and you can also share a side of beans, which are bathed with a delicious sauce. (Leftover beans are great with eggs the next day.) Don’t expect lots of fresh veggies. Greens are limited to a pedestrian salad.
1224 Capitol Trail, Newark, 737-2426; 1504 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 793-1504, thechickenhouserestaurant.com
Known for: Baja, Calif.-style mahi-mahi fish tacos, which are battered, fried and wrapped in a corn tortilla.
Insider tip: Also try cureta Vallarda, a burrito with shrimp and chorizo; tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk, made from scratch; and ceviche. On Nov. 2, for Day of the Dead, El Dorado offers a dinner menu that might include tuna tacos or tamales.
18776 John J. Williams Hwy., Rehoboth Beach, 645-1596, eldoradorehoboth.com
El Jefe Restaurant & Mexican Grill
Known for: Offering 40-plus brands of tequila—“There are always new drink concoctions,” says owner Martin Ruiz, who purchased El Jefe (“The Boss”), then just seven months old, when the former owner went on vacation and never came back.
Insider tip: Expect healthy-sized portions for big appetites. The burrito ranchero is stuffed with rice, refried beans, chopped chorizo, roasted chicken, steak, onions and jalapeno with a spicy ranchera sauce. The signature dish is molcajete, a bowl brimming with grilled meats topped with peppers, cheese and scallions, all accompanied by rice, beans and tortillas. Join the Amigo Club for special offers, such as $10 off a $30 purchase.
110 Astro Shopping Center, Newark, 894-9000, eljeferestaurant.com
Known for: Turning an old convenience store into a Mexican mecca in the Holly Oak area on Philadelphia Pike.
Insider tip: Bypass all the standard combinations for the enchiladas verdes: three chicken enchiladas with green tomatillo sauce, chopped onions and Mexican cheese atop salad and rice. Tacos de pollo asado features grilled chopped chicken with soft tacos, lettuce, tomatoes and spicy pico del gallo and salsa verde on the side.
1700 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 791-9566, eltapatiode.com/restaurant
Known for: Getting a thumbs up from Craig LaBan, who covers food for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He called it “one of the best examples of authentic Peruvian cuisine one can find in this region.”
Insider tip: Juliana Jimenez, who grew up near Lima, brings her country’s cuisine to Wilmington. Many dishes are family recipes. Don’t overdo the addictive toasted corn snacks. Save room for the seafood ceviche, banana-leaf tamale and Peru’s take on a stir-fry made with marinated beef. Jimenez’s husband, Edwin, a co-owner, recommends the picarones (doughnuts) when they’re available, and bisteca apandao con Tacu Tacu (breaded, fried steak with rice and beans).
1828 W. 11th St., Wilmington, 888-1828
La Tolteca and La Tonalteca
Known for: Spreading throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania faster than a spilled jar of Mexican jumping beans.
Insider tip: By now, probably everyone has one, depending on your favorite neighborhood version of the chain. There are some slight menu differences, but basically, you’ll find enchiladas, burritos, fajitas, quesadillas and a combination of the above, served with rice and beans on what your server will inevitably warn is a “hot plate.” The chips and salsa are addictive. Sour cream and iceberg lettuce salad is plopped on top of a dish. (Not a pretty sight when it’s all smooshed in a takeout container.) The predictability is why Delaware loves both versions of what is the state’s first well-known Mexican restaurant.
Multiple locations throughout the state, authenticmex.com
Known for: Being Tijuana Taco reincarnated in a new location. That late, lamented Mexican spot on Lancaster Pike closed shop about a year ago, to howls of disappointment from enchilada enthusiasts.
Insider tip: The poblano mole is one of the best mole dishes in Delaware. Almost everything in this new restaurant is made from scratch, including the house-fried chips and the guacamole made fresh tableside. Watch for pozole specials and “sampler” plates, where you can explore the menu in one meal.
3320 Old Capitol Trail, Wilmington, 660-7915
Known for: A beach view if you find just the right spot on the upstairs balcony.
Insider tip: Ask if seafood fajitas are available; they’re not on the menu. The pupusas—gorditas stuffed with pork and cheese—are little bundles of comfort. Fried plantains with sour cream are great to start or finish. Lengua al vino features sliced beef tongue in a Spanish cherry wine sauce.
14 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-0115, mariachirehobothde.com
Known for: Waterviews in Fenwick Island from the second-level deck and a clever take on South of the Border street food.
Insider tip: Kudos to one of Delaware’s newest Latin restaurants for thinking outside the box with dishes such as the lamb mole torta, braised goat tacos and “hangover” seafood cocktail. Diners are delighted with the Mexican street corn spritzed with lime, rubbed with cream cheese, and slathered with cilantro, chili dust and sea salt. (Not a first date food.) Desserts include guava cheesecake.
38929 Madison Ave., Fenwick Island, 436-7272, papagrandes.com
Pochi Chilean Cuisine and Wine Bar
Known for: Cuisine from the 2,653-mile South American country that runs from the Andes to the Drake Passage, and wines primarily from Chile and Argentina.
Insider tip: Start with the scallop and shrimp ceviche, then try pastel de choclo, a beef-and-chicken casserole with black olives and hardboiled egg, topped with a basil-infused corn crust. Braulio Rojas, who owns Pochi with wife and chef Patricia Millan, says beer-steamed mussels with chorizo or seafood empanadas are a must when available.
220 W. 9th St., Wilmington, 384-6654, pochiwinebar.com
Santa Fe Mexican Grill
Known for: Proving that good gorditas are possible.
Insider tip: The two restaurants initially had menu variations to appeal to the areas’ different demographics. Now they’re becoming more uniform, in part so diners at both can get their fav sopa at either spot. Current hot sellers at both include the golden chimichanga (fried or grilled and stuffed with chicken, pulled beef or carnitas) and molcajete, skirt steak and chicken breast in a spicy pepper sauce served in a lava rock bowl with all the accoutrements.
190 E. Main St., Newark, 369-2500; 2006 Pennsylvania Ave., Wilmington, 425-5200, santafemexicangrill.net
Known for: Being one of the largest—188 seats—Mexican restaurants just north of the Delaware-Pennsylvania border.
Insider tip: Ole! Fish fajitas with mango sauce is a light option, but if you want to pile it on, go for Molcajete Norteno, which takes the lava rock bowl to the next level. Grilled skirt steak nests with spicy red salsa, tomatoes and roasted chilis, and it’s all topped with shrimp, black beans, grilled chorizo, grilled cactus and queso fresco.
9173 Newport Pike, Avondale, Pa., (610) 268-3066, taqueriamoroleonpa.com