I felt more than a bit of fear when I entered Selena Mexican Restaurant in Pompton Lakes—an area with several Mexican grocery shops that might be considered, in some loose sense of the phrase, to be a "Mexican neighborhood." I've found that Mexican restaurants in big Mexican areas are always worse than ones in places with just a modest Mexican population. But that issue aside, Selenita is the best authentic Mexican restaurant in the state. With no burritos or margaritas in sight.
Enter the very dark dining room (dark because you want to get out of that blazing Mexican sun). Watch the Mexican videos, listen to the pop music, and check out the menu. For these few moments, you're in Mexico.
The menu is exciting just to read—tripe tacos, cow foot cemitas, barbacoa platters, cactus salad!. A nice selection of soups. The heat level here is almost always set on "mild," and for good reason: every dish has a kaleidoscope of flavors that sing out to you.
Start with the Aguas, iced fruit drinks in big cocktail glasses. Pineapple and strawberry are good first choices and the horchata is nutty and almost rich, but knowledgeable diners can ask what else is on offer.
I started with pozole, that soup of hominy, herbs, and shredded meat. Here it was flecked with red spices and brown herbs and sided with a pair of bean tostadas. It was the bowl I had hoped for, and failed to get, at a dozen other New Jersey Mexican restaurants.
On another visit, I was remembered as the guy who wanted tripe. It's true that tripe is often my first choice, but I ordered Huevos Mexicanos, a great plate that got its heat from chopped fresh chilies.
I'm not sure I've even scratched the surface here. There's a full menu of specialties from Puebla, and on weekends, those great soups and seafood. Pompton Lakes is a long haul from many parts of the state, but if you're a Mexican food fanatic, this is your place, no matter how far you have to drive.
While Selenita is great for serious Mexican food enthusiasts, it isn't the end of the story. There are other regions of Mexico—indeed, other regions of New Jerseym—and people are always trying to open restaurants. Mexican food is a growth area here and I promise to keep my eyes open.
Selenita Mexican Restaurant
118 Wanaque Avenue, Pompton Lakes NJ 07442 (map)