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El Meson Cafe
40 West Main Street
Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 308-9494

By The Artful Diner
May 10, 1999

El Meson is an excellent, family-oriented south-of-the-border eatery where patrons may chow down inexpensively on traditional Mexican vittles or splurge a bit on more subtle and innovative regional dishes. Wherever your taste buds may be leading, however, rest assured that you'll be getting more than your peso's worth. Indeed, when Chef/proprietor Flavio Torres is in his kitchen, all is right with the world. Just one word of caution... When he is absent, the quality of both the food and the service has been known to suffer occasional setbacks.

If you arrive on a Saturday evening, you will undoubtedly enter from the side door at the rear and thread your way through El Meson's rather dark and dreary retail department. Here you find shelves overflowing with Mexican comestibles and a refrigerated case filled with impeccably fresh meats, cilantro and cactus pads. The front of the house--bright and colorful but somewhat utilitarian--is adorned with sombrero-encased suspending lighting, glass-topped tables & paper napkins, and plain walls awash with (extremely favorable) restaurant reviews. Things may look on the quiet side but, trust me, it is the calm before the storm. On a typical madcap Saturday night, the restaurant is filled by 6:00 p.m.; by 7:00 p.m., potential patrons (and their assorted offspring) of every size, shape and description are lined up through the retail section and out the door. One redeeming feature: in warmer weather, diners may opt to chow down outside on the patio, thus alleviating the organized chaos of the small dining room.

If you are feeling somewhat adventurous of palate, be sure to consult the list of specials. And Camarones a la Parrilla ($7.95) is an excellent way to start things off. Horseradish brushed shrimp are perfectly grilled and accompanied by an exotic mango cocktail sauce. Also highly recommended is the Ravioletes de Espinacas ($6.99), spinach raviolis with fresh julienne veggies sauteed in olive oil and tossed with a delicious garlic wine sauce.

For those who prefer more traditional aperitivos, be sure to have a go at the super nachos ($6.95) smothered with refried beans, melted Monterey Jack and topped with the usual array of yummies: guacamole, sour cream, olives, jalapenos, pico de gallo (a slightly spicy raw tomato relish) and salsa ranchera (vegetable cheese herb sauce). This one is suitable for sharing; as are the copious fajita and taco salads ($7.95 & $8.95, respectively).

When it comes to entrees, the special offerings continue to showcase the chef's considerable talents. In this regard, the zucchini boat ($12.99) is an especially good choice. It is filled with creamy risotto, grilled chicken tenders, chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage) and topped with a delectable chipotle tomato sauce. Carnivores may revel in the luscious grilled veal chop ($19.95) crowned with eggplant and roasted poblano and red peppers. The grilled salmon ($18.99) is also noteworthy; it is accompanied by a sauteed cactus pad and chicken tamale and finished with whole grain honey mustard sauce. You might also try a gourmet salad ($12.49). On one particular evening, a flour tortilla shell was filled with mixed spring greens and tossed with a lovely avocado dressing. A little grilled chicken was added, a touch of corn relish, a sprinkling of cheese and a few roasted poblano peppers. Que aproveche! The perfect meal for those who enjoy somewhat lighter fare.

Now for the bad news... If a restaurant is destined to suffer a major breakdown in either food or service (or both), it is, as a general rule, most likely to occur on a bustling Saturday night when all concerned are pushed to the max. At El Meson, interestingly enough, the obverse appears to be true. If you arrive on a quiet Monday or Tuesday evening, for example, you are told that menu specials are available Wednesday - Sunday only. Which indicates, I have no doubts, the days when Mr. Torres holds forth in the kitchen.

In many establishments, the executive chef's absence is not a problem... but here it appears to be so. The service, which proved itself completely up to the challenge on a whirlwind Saturday night, now seems strangely disoriented. And, although the dining room is sparsely populated, orders delivered to several surrounding tables prove to be incorrect and must be returned to the kitchen. My own enchilada ($9.95) comes filled with pork, rather than the chicken I had requested, and must also be recalled. When it eventually makes its way back to our table, it is, due to some confusion in communication, packaged to go.

The caliber of the cuisine also seems to suffer on the days when Mr. Torres in not in attendance. Oh, it is still quite good... but it just lacks that wee bit of finesse that sets it apart from standard south-of-the-border fare. The Espinacas con Queso ($5.99), chopped spinach covered with melted Monterey Jack and cheddar, is nearly bereft of greenery and is nothing but a gooey mass of insufficiently melted cheese. The homemade black bean soup ($1.99/$2.99) is utterly delicious, but its taste is all but obviated by a huge gob of sour cream. A tiny dollop would have been more than sufficient. A pork fajita ($13.95) is also of excellent quality, but the meat is dry. What Mr. Torres brings to El Meson is a touch of class; and, unfortunately, he appears to be all too conspicuous by his absence.

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, however, I do very much appreciate the food here and would not hesitate to return. Just follow a few simples rules and the possibility of disappointment will be kept to a minimum: 1) Make it a point to stop by when you are reasonably certain that Mr. Torres is cooking, and 2) Have dessert ($2.95) at home. The refried ice cream and so-so flan come garnished with slices of spotted, overripe banana, canned whipped cream, and simply do not measure up to the other culinary offerings.

Cuisine: Mexican
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. daily; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri - Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V,
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant
Reservations: Not accepted
Parking: Street parking and nearby municipal lots
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive/Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes, but restrooms are downstairs
Specials: Menu specials Weds - Sun; patio dining in warmer weather

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