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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

San Miguel
Ritz Plaza
910 Route 561
Voorhees, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 566-4225

By The Artful Diner
September 8, 2008

Printable Copy of this Review

When chef/proprietor Mark O'Mara of the MO Café & Grill in Voorhees purchased San Miguel Mexican Restaurant in Washington Township, he felt the possible patrons at each of these establishments would be better served by the other -- so he pulled a restaurant switcheroo. He relocated San Miguel to Voorhees and MO to Washington Township.

Actually, I never got the feeling that MO (which I reviewed 2/13/06) was hurting for business, especially with the built-in clientele pouring daily into the adjacent cartel of movie theaters. And while I can't speak firsthand with regard to MO at this juncture, if the quality of the food and the recent crowds at San Miguel are any indication, this was definitely a shrewd move.

The décor has changed little from the previous incarnation -- still a curvaceous combo of colors, shapes, and textures -- only now the decorative embellishments are south-of-the-border swank rather than California chic, including Mexican-made lead-free flatware.

The bustling open kitchen also remains, and there is absolutely no doubt that it turns out an exceedingly appetizing array of modern Mexican fare. And the presentations are attractive as well. In other words, unlike many establishments, the rice and refried beans don't look like they've been dropped onto the plate from an unknown altitude.

Starters, for example, exhibit a decidedly sophisticated touch. The blue corn quesadillas arrive with tender smoked pulled chicken, apple wood smoked bacon, and Oaxaca cheese (a semi-hard Mexican cheese that is similar to un-aged Monterey jack but with a string-like texture). Embellishments include pico de gallo and an eye-pleasing drizzle of chipotle crema.

The empanadas are comprised of three ethereal corn pockets stuffed with queso fresco (a creamy, soft, un-aged white cheese) that are gently deep fried and then topped with shredded lettuce, sour cream, and more cheese.

The crispy coconut shrimp are delicately crunchy, teasing the palate with a tantalizing hint of spice as well as sweetness. Consummating touches include a slice of perfectly grilled pineapple and bed of shaved cabbage tossed with a zippy Malibu cream sauce.

Even the Mexican Cobb salad is appealingly presented. Pristinely fresh chopped romaine lettuce is teamed with Cotija cheese, crisp bacon, diced tomato & crumbled egg, and crowned with a tiara of guacamole. The beguiling catalyst is an excellent chipotle ranch dressing.

When it comes to entrée selections, seafood plays a prominent role. The sunfish, for example, is pan seared, sautéed with white wine, butter, lime, capers, and De Arbol chilies, and then fired with aged tequila and topped with crabmeat... The filet of Atlantic salmon is crusted with homemade ancho horseradish and grilled on a cedar plank... The blackened mahi mahi is seared in a cast iron skillet and topped with red onion and mango salsa.

My nod, however, goes to the attractive presentation of fish tacos. This may be a relatively simple dish, but it is entirely indicative of the kitchen's careful attention to detail. For starters, the morsels of mahi mahi are embraced by a beer batter that is light, crisp, and not the least bit greasy. And their texture is perfectly complemented by a seabed of carrot-jicama slaw. Consummatory accompaniments include warm tortillas and ramekins of guacamole, chipotle sour cream, and corn salsa.

Sundays - Wednesdays patrons may avail themselves of Mexican "Special" fare. Read here Mexican "Ordinary" fare: tostadas, tamales, burritos, enchiladas, etc. (all going for $13.99)... If you really want to see what the kitchen can do, however, my advice is to go with the traditional Mexican entrées, which have infinitely more to offer the serious diner.

The discadas (fajita), for instance, is comprised of bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, bacon, and choice of steak, chicken, shrimp, or vegetables sautéed with spices and topped with Chihuahua cheese. And, be advised, the steak is tender, the chicken moist, the shrimp appropriately crunchy, and the vegetables firm to the bite. The only semi-downer: The accompanying guacamole is first-rate, but the refried beans are strictly generic, and the rice is far from memorable.

Molcajetes is another Mexican signature dish characterized by its intensity of flavor. The diner's choice of steak, shrimp, chicken, pork, or vegetables is simmered in a pasilla chile sauce and served in a cured hot lava rock mortar. I chose the pork and found it to be exceptional.

For dessert, the sopapillas are something of a must. Cinnamon & sugar coated fried dough in the shape of steak fries are sided by cinnamon honey, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. There is no espresso, but the coffee acquits itself reasonably well.

My chief bone of contention with San Miguel lies with its climate control -- or lack thereof. When I reviewed this restaurant as MO, it was in the bleak midwinter, and I noted that the tables situated along a row of windows were decidedly drafty... even more so when the front door swung open, permitting the mistral to blow down this icy corridor and chill diners to the bone.

One recent weekend, however, the obverse was true: Temperatures soared and the air was positively tropical. Seated near San Miguel's entrance before being seated, the members of our party felt uncomfortably warm. Once settled into a banquette that backed up against the open kitchen, the air was stifling, a positive inferno. When we inquired of our server, he informed us that the air conditioning was not working properly (Actually, it felt like it was not working at all!). But the salient point, I believe, is that patrons should have been informed of the air conditioning problem by management prior to being seated, not after; and it should not have been left to the poor server to be the bearer of bad news.

San Miguel is a very good restaurant... but management made a number of poor decisions. In point of fact, given the highly unusual circumstances, the restaurant should have closed for the evening, as the atmosphere, in my opinion, was very nearly uninhabitable. But money, as we know, can be a powerful persuader.

Hopefully, by the time you decide to pay a visit, the air conditioning will be in working order... as the food is definitely worth it.

Cuisine: Modern Mexican
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sat & Sun Brunch: 10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Appetizers, $5.99 - $12.99; Entrées, $13.99 - $24.99
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.sanmiguelmexican.com

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