"It's a four-stool snack bar in back of a nice little grocery store filled with Oaxacan specialties."
For quite awhile, I'd been trying—and failing—to learn more about La Costeñita, a tiny island of authentic Mexican cooking adrift in the no-man's-land between Bridgewater and Princeton. I kept going there in search of "the boss"—the lovely Oaxacan woman who seems to be able to greet every customer and then vanish before you can find your menu, leaving you to order from the women behind the counter.
Mexican cooking has a strange reputation here in the Garden State. Chains dominate, loud independents that sell more liquor than food take up much of the slack, and the places with the real stuff are said to be only at the very bottom of the state. (See my Dispatch about Tacos Bravos in Bridgeton.) That's why I was attracted to La Costeñita. It didn't fit in with the local Mexican restaurant vibe; its menu of tacos, flautas, sopes, picaditas, tamales, and more (all in the six dollar range) had real authentic flavor.
It doesn't have that margarita-and-taco-salad restaurant vibe for another reason, too—it's not a restaurant. It's a four-stool snack bar in back of a nice little grocery store filled with Oaxacan specialties. If you're ready to make mole from scratch, you can come here, get yourself all those herbs and chiles, and have a nice plate of food while you're at it. Picaditas—homemade fried tortillas filled your choice of meat. (Try the "Mayan-Style Pork.) Or how about the Sopes? Not soups (that would be sopas), but rather fried cornmeal patties with your choice of topping, or tortas, Mexican sandwiches.
You might ask, who shops at La Costeñita? The answer seems to be, "everybody." People in suits stop by for a pound of fresh Mexican chorizo, soccer mom types pick up a few layered gelatin desserts called gelatinas ($1.50 each) and a can of chipotle peppers, and men in well-worn work clothes wolf down platters of flautas and tostadas. Large packages of dried chiles, corn husks, and hominy mean that they supply at least a few restaurants.
As I drove home in the bitter cold, I still felt warmed by a plate of Picaditas, still thinking about the deep fried corn masa they were made with.
450 Amwell Road, Hillsborough NJ 08844 (map)