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Juanito's
159 Monmouth Street
Red Bank, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 747-9118

By The Artful Diner
March 16, 1998

Driving along Monmouth Street on a chilly winter's evening, the sight of Juanito's Mexican Restaurant is all but irresistible. The exterior of this storefront affair isn't particularly prepossessing, but there's an aura about it, an intoxicating glow that seems to emanate from behind those large plate-glass windows, enticing you to enter. You've never seen this place before, you haven't read a review or heard any rumored whisperings among your knowledgeable foodie friends, and you and your spouse/significant other have reservations to dine elsewhere... But you have the strongest urge to park the car, throw culinary caution to the wind, and follow your discriminating sense of smell right across this alluring eatery's curiously inviting threshold.

This is precisely how my wife and I reacted the first time we laid eyes on this beguiling little restaurant. We were pretty sure that good things were happening here... and we wanted to be in on them. When we returned, several weeks later, we were happy to discover that our instincts definitely had NOT been playing us tricks. Juanito's was every bit as intriguing as we'd imagined.

The diminutive, smoke-free dining room, which accommodates only 45, is modestly appointed with a variety of sombreros and other interesting artifacts from south-of-the-border. And, unless you like to dine inordinately early (especially on Saturday evenings), you will always find it full and overflowing. In one corner, a party of ten appears to be celebrating their own private fiesta. In another, a gentleman sporting a ponytail seems perfectly content with his own company. In between these two extremes, there are several families with assorted children in tow, couples stopping by for a quick bite on their way to the Count Basie Theater, and an eclectic mix of every conceivable age, shape and description. However, no matter what your social predilection or the state of your wardrobe, you'll immediately feel at home here. This is a gregarious crowd, all part of the same ongoing party, easily exchanging pleasantries between tables of heretofore total strangers.

And Juan Torres, the chef/owner, is the perfect host. He is also a man in a constant state of motion. When he isn't greeting newcomers at the door or striking up a conversation hither and thither, he can be seen, up to his elbows in gigantic oven mittens, shuttling a host of sizzling comestibles to his ever-appreciative patrons.

Should you be entertaining any notions that the cuisine could easily end up playing second fiddle at this charming eatery, allow me to lay your fears to rest. Even if the complimentary tortilla chips and delicious salsa cruda don't win you over, from the very first taste of your Black Bean Soup, you'll know you're in capable hands. It has long been my contention that a humble porridge can tell you more about a given kitchen's capabilities than any fancy-schmancy appetizer you'd care to name... and Sopa de Frijoles Negros is most certainly the acid test of good Mexican cookery. In some restaurants it limps its way out of the kitchen looking insipidly anemic, exhibiting about as much sensory appeal as dirty dishwater. Here it arrives at table rich of flavor and of texture, with just a touch of sour cream to smooth out the subtle spices.

Additional starters you might consider include Super or Vegetarian Nachos, Jalepeno Poppers (buttered and fried Jalepeno peppers), and Chorizo Flamado, savory Mexican sausage. Although it does not appear on the printed menu, watch the blackboard for a special quesadilla with spinach and cheese. Definitely NOT the sort of indulgence to be considered the night before your next cholesterol test... but this appetizer is an absolute MUST any other time you can lay your hands on it. Taco Salad (Tostada Grande) is also a good opening bet. Served with either blackened beef or chicken, it is large enough to adequately accommodate two or three as an appetizer or one as a main course.

When it comes to entrees, you'll find the usual selection of enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas and quesadillas--all of which are up to the mark, by the way. But if you really want to sample Mr. Torres at his best, have a go at either the house specialties or the daily blackboard specials, many of which feature both classic and innovative seafood dishes. At the top of the list is Panella, a complex and immensely satisfying dish of rice and vegetables combined with a variety of shellfish and meats. Then there's a perfectly prepared Filete de Pescade, filet of sole garnished with tomatoes, onions, and avocado slices. The Red Snapper, prepared Veracruz style (with onions, peppers, tomatoes, cilantro and capers and finished with white wine), is also an excellent choice. And shrimp lovers are in for a treat. These tasty crustaceans are featured in several solo performances and also appear in concert with other piscatorial offerings. A Fajita, for instance, which literally means "skirt steak," was recently updated to include an absolutely marvelous combination of blackened strips of tuna and shrimp.

Mexican restaurants are not known for their profusion of desserts, and the few representatives here are pretty much standard fare. The coffee and espresso, however, whether regular or decaffeinated, are both strong and flavorful and the perfect ending to your meal.

If I have one minor gripe with this establishment, it is that the kitchen is somewhat quick on the draw. This is especially evident during the all too brief interim between the first bite of one's appetizer and a server's inquiring "Are you ready for your entree?" Not that this is the kind of place where couples would be tempted to spend an extended evening holding hands and exchanging longing gazes over their guacamole... Still, regardless of one's romantic predisposition or the state of one's appointment calendar, this form of gung ho gastronomy has little to recommend it.

Other than that, it's easy to like Juanito's. The food is obviously carefully and lovingly prepared--and downright reasonable. Regular entrees are priced between $8.00 - $10.00, less at lunch. Even the house specialties and the blackboard specials do not exceed $15.95. In other words, you may dine as cheaply or as extravagantly as you wish on a given evening and still be ahead of the game. The fact that you are free to tote along your own wine or beer is also extremely beneficial to the bottom line.

Since Juanito's only accepts reservations for parties of six or more, come early if you'd prefer not to wait for a table. However, help for this situation may be on the way. Mr. Torres contemplates making extensive renovations to his establishment sometime in the near future. These changes, he feels, will substantially enhance the restaurant's limited seating capacity. Hey... the more, the merrier. Buen apetito!

Hours: Lunch: Mon, Weds, Thurs, Fri, 11:30 - 3; Dinner: Mon, Weds, Thurs, 4:30 - 9; Fri, 4:30 - 10; Sat, 4 - 10; Sun, 3 - 9; CLOSED TUESDAY
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Very Casual
Smoking: This is a nonsmoking restaurant
Reservations: Only for parties of six or more
Parking: Ample street parking

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