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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Riviera Maya
340 Route 206
Branchville, New Jersey
(973) 948-6292

August 12, 2010

Riviera Maya is just one of those fun places. There's a lively bar scene populated by a convivial, multigenerational crowd... festively colored tables and chairs... sombreros suspended from the ceiling... live mariachi band on Thursday nights... and $5.00 frozen margaritas to make everything go down nice and easy.

The restaurant does seem a bit off the beaten track (about 11 miles from the Wooden Duck B & B in Newton, where we generally hang our hats when we're in the area), but the quality of the food and the festive atmosphere make it something of a must for Sussex County residents and visitors alike.

Riviera Maya majors in traditional Tex-Mex, but it is a significant cut above the run-of-the-mill "glop 'n' growl" south-of-the-border chain chophouse fare. Yes, all entrées come with the usual suspects -- namely rice and refried beans -- but even these are alive with their own unique flavors.

Among the aperitivos, the ceviche -- with citrus-marinated shrimp a superlative stand-in for the typical fish -- is a standout. The diced crustaceans are combined with chopped onions, tomatoes, cilantro, zesty spices, and then topped with slices of avocado. Marvelously addictive.

And speaking of avocado... the house-made guacamole is also not to be missed. Incredibly creamy, while still maintaining a certain "chunky" integrity, the dish possesses just enough zip to perfectly offset the avocado's natural blandness. An absolute sine qua non for guacamole fans.

But if you want to cover all the bases, there's always the Bontana, a sampler consisting of mini flautas, nachos, quesadillas, guacamole, and sour cream. Then, of course, there are several large salads that are most suitable for sharing and also an absolute dynamite black bean soup.

When it comes to main courses, all the quintessential Tex-Mex representatives -- chimichangas, tacos, burritos, tamales, enchiladas, etc. -- are present and accounted for... But my advice is to go for the special dishes or the favoritos, as they really show what the kitchen can do.

The vegetable fajita, which may also be prepared with chicken, shrimp, or beef, is a study in simplicity... Freshly sliced vegetables bask in a slightly zesty marinade, are cooked with sliced onions & peppers, and then the dish flies out of the kitchen on a sizzling hot plate. This Tex-Mex standard is served in a plethoric variety of eateries, but here it is cooked up with unusual flare and finesse.

Red meat is a particular favorite. the Bistec Albanil is steak sautéed with seasoned herbs and spices; the Bistec Jalisco is accompanied by enchilada mole poblano and enchilada suiza; the Bistec Azteca is shell steak prepared with sautéed garlic and topped with spicy green sauce and melted cheese; and the Borrego Guadalajara consists of tender marinated lamb embraced by a flavorful house-made special sauce.

Among these carnivorous pursuits, however, my nod would undoubtedly go to the "other white meat." If improperly prepared, pork has been known to dry out at the drop of a fork, but the Mixiote served up here is marinated, companioned by sweet pasilla pepper, olives & butter, and then steamed to moist, succulent perfection. If you enjoy pork, this is one dish that is surely worth a detour.

To conclude your evening at table, nothing beats the flan, the homemade Mexican caramel custard. In lesser establishments, this can be one cloying customer... But everything about this dessert is just right... the flavor... the texture... and just the proper touch of sweetness. Benchmark.

As I noted at the outset, Riviera Maya is a fun place to chow down. The atmosphere is casually convivial, the food is first-rate, and the prices are more than reasonable. Enjoy!

Cuisine: Tex-Mex
Hours: Open daily: Sun - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major Attire: Casual
Reservations: Accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.rivieramayarestaurant.net

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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