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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Don José Mexican Restaurant
200 Route 10 West
East Hanover, Morris County, New Jersey
(973) 781-0155

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
2/25/2002

Tucked away in yet another significantly-less-than-attractive shopping center along bustling Route 10, Don José's isn't terribly easy to find. Indeed, since the restaurant is not visible from the highway, unless you just happen to catch a glimpse of the name (along with a host of other names) on the sign out front, you're likely to drive right on by. But persevere in your search... and you will surely be rewarded with a most edifying dining experience.

Once you finally discover this establishment, you realize immediately that all will be well. Joined at the hip with Penang, a first-class Malaysian eatery, Don José's is a bright and cheery spot, boasting a row of comfy booths along one wall, colorful murals, and a host of splashy decorative embellishments. There's nothing fancy here -- bare wooden tables, paper placemats, and linen napkins -- but there's a lively and clean feel about the place, and members of the wait staff are knowledgeable and most eager to please.

The unusually crunchy tortilla chips, refreshingly devoid of an overabundance of salt, are absolutely first-rate... as is the accompanying salsa cruda. There's just enough heat to tantalize rather than paralyze the palate, and just enough body to the salsa to adhere to the chip rather than necessitate a precarious balancing act that inevitably ends in a watery mess on the table... or in your unsuspecting lap. But this excellent prelude is but a harbinger of the good things to come...

Under the auspices of the family Arceo, Don José Mexican Restaurant had its beginnings in San José Jalisco, Mexico, in 1970. Today, Chef José and his brothers carry on the tradition by offering the very same menu that was available in the former family eatery. The ingredients are impeccably fresh, the cuisine made to order, and the prices more than reasonable.

The chorizo ($5.95), strips of spicy grilled Mexican sausage, makes a fabulous opening move. As with the aforementioned salsa, there are just enough fireworks to tease the taste buds without traumatizing them. In any event, sour cream and an excellent homemade guacamole smooth things out a bit, even as a dash of pico de gallo (a fresh, uncooked relish comprised of chopped tomatoes, onions, scallions, cilantro, oregano, jicama, and chilies) adds a touch more heat.

Quesadillas ($4.95) also make exceptional starters. And while restaurants may different significantly with regard to their interpretation of this popular dish, the version encountered here is particularly refined. Two fresh flour tortillas are, according to your predilection, stuffed with cheese, chicken or beef and garnished with pico de gallo and a dollop of sour cream. The result is a pie-shaped Mexican "sandwich" cut into delicious, delicate wedges.

The chilaquiles ($5.95), fried tortilla strips adorned with chunks of grilled chicken and smothered with shredded cheese, is also a highly recommended starter. Of course, if you really want to forget the diet for the evening and postpone your next cholesterol test, go for the super nachos with the works ($8.95). Absolutely fabulous!

The list of entrées contains the usual assortment of Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex, and Southwestern cookery that you would expect to find in most Americanized Mexican eateries. But what sets these offerings apart from those served up in other establishments is the pristine character of the ingredients and the chef's careful attention to detail and loving preparation. The fajitas, for example, contain peppers and onions that are snatched from the fire seconds before they find their way to your table. The portobello version ($9.95) contains thick and meaty slices that are every bit as seductive as a juicy steak, and the chicken rendition ($12.95) includes succulent morsels bursting with flavor and just the proper hint of spice. Even the more mundane enchilada, taco, and burrito combinations (all $10.95) acquit themselves admirably.

If you really want to get a feel for what this kitchen can do, however, I would highly recommend the outstanding piscatorial presentations. And the crustaceans are particularly noteworthy. The sautéed shrimp Guadalajara ($14.95) are properly crunchy and commingled with bits of bacon, mushrooms, onions, and poblano peppers. Even more decadently delicious is the shrimp El Dorado ($14.95) -- stuffed with cheese, wrapped with bacon, and served up with rice and black beans -- and the shrimp casa blanca ($14.95) -- embellished with heavy cream, orange juice, white wine, and mushrooms.

Unlike many Mexican eateries that tend to shy away from finny fare, this is one restaurant that prominently features both salmon and red snapper. The salmon Don José ($13.95) is perfectly broiled and then teamed up with garlic, cilantro, white wine, lemon, and topped with sautéed mushrooms. The red snapper San Diego ($13.95) is topped with red peppers, onions, tomatoes, and is consummated with a blanket of melted cheese.

Lovers of red meat need not despair, however, as their carnivorous cravings are very much taken into account. Steak entrées ($13.95) are quite prolific; they are also expertly grilled and seasoned with appropriate gusto. The shell steak vato loco is prepared with garlic, portobello mushrooms, red peppers, and a touch of white wine and vinegar, respectively. The steak cinco de Mayo is a bit more spirited, sporting a bacon wrapping, tomato sauce, and melted cheese.

South-of-the-border eateries don't place a great deal of emphasis on their desserts... But I must confess that I have a decided weakness for fried ice cream ($2.95). The version encountered here is certainly nothing spectacular; still, after ingesting a variety of spicy foods, you will find it a refreshing conclusion to your meal. The flan ($2.95) isn't bad either. Should you be in the mood to share, go for the apple fiesta ($2.95), a warm flour tortilla filled with hot apples and topped with vanilla ice cream... And, of no small consequence, the restaurant also brews a commendable cup of coffee.

If you appreciate good Mexican cuisine served up in lively and comfortable surroundings, Don José's is most assuredly worth seeking out.

Cuisine: Mexican
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Fri - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.; sun, 12:00 noon - 10:00p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Special: Entertainment on Friday & Saturday nights

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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