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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.

Tinga Taqueria
215 Bellevue Avenue
Upper Montclair, Essex County, New Jersey
(973) 509-8226

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
September 27, 2004

Printable Copy of this Review

Located along a fashionable stretch of Bellevue Avenue in Upper Montclair, in warmer weather, restaurant Tinga Taqueria spills out onto the sidewalk in a frolicsome fiesta. And the establishment's diminutive storefront interior, accented by a large, colorful wall mural, is equally upbeat: the finely controlled fanaticism of an always bustling semi-open kitchen; a busy counter that handles a nonstop profusion of take-out orders and sundry other responsibilities; a clamorously convivial sea of humanity that chows down at bare tables simply adorned with spice bottles and paper napkin-wrapped utensils.

If you haven't tumbled to it yet, let me set the record straight -- this joint really jumps. And since reservations are not accepted, your best stratagem, if you don't wish to cool your heels standing outside in the heat or cold, is to arrive early. On a recent visit, for example, we put in an appearance at approximately 6:15 p.m. on a Friday evening only to find the place already filled to capacity. Fortunately, our friends, who had arrived just a few moments before, managed to snare a table for four in the back corner.

Once settled in, you peruse the menu while assuaging your hunger pangs with a complimentary basket of made-fresh-daily multi-colored tortilla chips and first-rate pico de gallo. This salsa hits all the right notes -- neither too thick nor too watery -- and succeeds in gently arousing the palate with a tantalizing after burn. I would also recommend that you have a go at the guacamole (small, .95; large, $4.25; large with chips, $4.75), which is another excellent starter. Rich and creamy of consistency, it boasts just the proper combo of ingredients -- chopped white onion, chilies, cilantro, and lime juice -- to offset the natural blandness of the avocado.

Having concluded your all-important menu decisions, you elect a delegate who makes his/her way to the counter, places the order, and pays up. The food is subsequently delivered to your table via server. Only one small point to bear in mind... all items specified are delivered simultaneously, which is absolutely fine if you want to grab and growl and enjoy a spirited bout of conversation while slugging down a few cold ones or bottle of chilled white wine (the restaurant is BYOB), as we did on this festive occasion. On the other hand, if you'd prefer to space out your meal at a more leisurely pace, this will necessitate two trips to the counter (possibly a third should you have an incurably sweet tooth), one for items you wish to consume as appetizers and, sometime later, a second sojourn to request those that would comprise your main courses.

But don't let this little idiosyncrasy throw you. However the food may arrive -- individually or en masse -- it will not disappoint. Lard and other animal fats may be absent from the cooking process (which is surely a plus for your health), but the flavors are in no way diminished.

Quesadillas -- lightly grilled 12-inch flour tortillas folded over Monterey Jack cheese and a variety of other ingredients -- all make excellent showings. The spinach version ($6.50), pristinely fresh (as opposed to frozen) greenery gently sautéed with garlic and onions, is particularly recommended, as is la casa'dilla ($7.95). This rendition features a formidable combo of black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, and just enough sautéed jalapeños to add a bit of pizzazz to the proceedings. Steak ($7.25), shrimp ($8.75), and chicken ($6.25) quesadillas are also available.

As I have mentioned in previous reviews of similar eateries, the word "burrito" literally means "little burro" and refers to the diminutive snacks that originated in northern Mexico. Once they made their way across the border, however, these Cal/Mex conglomerations grew to gargantuan proportions. Those served up at Tinga Taqueria aren't as enormous as some I've encountered, but they are still more than generous. You may choose from a variety of chicken, beef, and vegetarian representatives, all garnished with the usual simpatico suspects, salsa and sour cream.

The BBQ brisket and pork burritos (both $8.95) -- hickory smoked and simmered in a tangy barbecue sauce -- are both numero uno when I'm feeling carnivorously inclined. Ditto their siblings, pulled chicken and pork or brisket (all $6.95) presented on a hard roll rather than in a tomato tortilla. Also highly recommended is el picadillo burrito ($8.45), ground beef sautéed with a slightly spicy mix of tomatoes, garlic, onions, carrots & peas, and wrapped in a chili tortilla.

Among the vegetarian possibilities, I particularly enjoy the Californian ($8.25) -- fresh guacamole, black beans, Spanish rice, and Monterey Jack cheese -- shrimp ($10.95), and portobello mushroom & spinach ($9.75) variations on the theme.

As is the case in many free-wheeling Mexican establishments, there are a number of options for the do-it-yourselfer... Nachos and quesadillas (both $4.25), for example, may be customized by adding: tomato, jalapeños, tomatillo salsa, Spanish rice, black beans (.90 each); fresh guacamole, sautéed spinach, grilled peppers & onions, sweet potato casserole ($1.95 each); and/or beef picadillo, BBQ chicken, brisket, or pulled pork ($2.50 each). And the enchilada platter ($9.25) may be spruced up with such items as char-grilled steak ($3.00), shrimp ($4.00), and/or grilled portobello mushrooms ($3.00).

Other highlights include the Mexican chicken wrap ($7.25) -- grilled chunks of marinated chicken, pico de gallo, Monterey Jack cheese, and guacamole wrapped in the strong embrace of a flour tortilla -- and a scrumptious "Philly Steak Mexicano" ($7.95). Also featured are a number of lunch specials, most served with chips and soda, from 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., as well as a kid-friendly menu for children twelve and under. This restaurant isn't exactly big on desserts; however, should you be so inclined, the traditional flan ($3.75), baked Spanish custard with cinnamon and caramel sauce, is usually available.

In addition to the Upper Montclair facility, Tinga is also located in Millburn (321 Millburn Avenue) and just recently opened another restaurant in Westfield (110 Central Avenue). No matter where you may decide to pay a call, however, for a casual Tex/Mex chow-down at incredibly reasonable prices, Tinga Taqueria is hard to beat.

Cuisine: Mexican/Southwestern
Hours: Open 7 days, 11:30 a.m. - Close
Credit Cards: MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Not accepted
Parking: Metered street parking and nearby metered lot
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive
Handicapped Accessible: Everything on one level, but quarters are cramped
Web Site: www.tingausa.com

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