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Tortilla Press
703 Haddon Avenue
Collingswood, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 869-3345

By The Artful Diner
September 26, 2005

With its jazzy mango, lime, apricot and plum walls, colorful banquettes, ongoing supply of virgin margaritas, daiquiris and piña coladas awaiting the bestowal of patrons' libationary rejuvenations (the restaurant is BYO), and hip, high energy level, Tortilla Press is a frisky, frolicsome fiesta, a kind of nonstop Cinco de Mayo.

Given the restaurant's popularity, and the fact that reservations are accepted for parties of six or more only, my advice is to come early. Just one word of admonition: The dining area that opens to the street is a frenetic, bustling space, often with a guitar player adding to the spatial strictures and general organized chaos. Much preferred is a second dining room (make a gentle left turn just past the spiffy copper/granite bar). Here, in (comparatively) more sedate surroundings, large windows provide a picturesque panorama of Collingswood's human flora and fauna.

No matter where you eventually alight, however, you will find the tables rather tightly spaced and the noise level often formidable. If you haven't guessed by now, Tortilla Press is a place for group gatherings and festive free-for-alls rather than romantic rendezvous. Go with that in mind and a good time will be had by all. Interestingly enough, while the atmosphere can be wild and woolly, the young, knowledgeable and energetic servers never seem to falter. And that is a sterling restaurant recommendation in anyone's book.

The food is also quite impressive, especially since proprietor Mark Smith and his wife and partner, Lydia Cipriana, utilize fresh local ingredients whenever possible. During the Garden State's glorious growing season, for example, you might begin with an exemplary chilled fresh Jersey tomato gazpacho ($5.00). When it comes to sampling soups, as my wife will be only too glad to relate, my standard line is usually: "It needs something." Not so here. This flavorful, coarsely puréed elixir is rich in both color and texture, endowed with lime, tincture of cilantro, pickled red onions, cucumber slices, and enough spice to make your taste buds sit up and take notice. A simply marvelous starter.

... As is the esquites quesadilla ($8.00) filled with grilled Jersey sweet corn, avocado slices, fresh lime, cheese and epazote (a pungent herb also known as "pigweed" or "Mexican tea") and sided with pico de gallo and Mexican crème. Another equally edifying version ($8.50) boasts crispy smoked bacon, slices of Springdale Farm tomato and luscious Chihuahua cheese (a yellow cheese -- also called queso menonita after the Mennonite communities of northern Mexico that first produced it -- not unlike mild cheddar in flavor and consistency). This rendition also includes a dollop of excellent house-made guacamole, which is also worth ordering on its own with homemade chips and salsa ($5.50).

When it comes to appetizers, however, the ceviche ($9.50) -- classic lime-marinated sea scallops, salmon filet and shrimp -- is clearly the star of the show. Utterly pristine, mouthwateringly tender chunks of seafood are presented in several different formats; but I cast my vote for the "Acapulco-style" dressing -- olive oil, chopped pimento, tomato, avocado, cilantro and house-pickled jalapeño -- as this possesses just enough pizzazz to intensify your palatable pleasure without sending it into a tailspin. And speaking of intensity, don't forget to avail yourself of a few sprinkles of the accompanying shaker, an amalgam of chile de arbol and pinch of salt, which is guaranteed to add a tantalizing touch of heat.

Entrées aren't quite on a par with the superlative appetizers, but they are very good (and extremely reasonably priced) nonetheless. And one of the things I particularly like about Tortilla Press's main offerings is that you don't get the same-ol', same-ol' piles of guacamole, sour cream, rice, and refried beans cluttering up every dish. There's welcome variety here and, as noted above, usually based upon the freshest possible ingredients.

The salmon filet ($16.50) may be a bit on the anorexic side, but it is perfectly cooked, slathered with a first-rate house special BBQ sauce, and served up with a mound of zesty chipolte mashed potatoes and medley of sautéed seasonal vegetables. The shrimp arcoiris ($16.50) is a colorful array of crunchy crustaceans sautéed with peppers, onions, mushrooms, and jolt of garlic chile butter. A pillow of poblano-spinach rice proves a most suitable complementary companion.

Dyed-in-the-wool carnivores may avail themselves of either the marinated sliced steak ($15.00), or twin tenderloin medallions ($17.50). The former is topped with rojas poblano; the latter, presented atop freshly made roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa. Both are partnered with a mound of those lusty chipotle mashed potatoes.

I also highly recommend the twin cheese chile rellanos ($16.00). The two poblano chiles are filled with cheese, lightly battered and fried, anointed with a fabulously flavorful roasted tomato cilantro sauce, and served up with savory red beans. The plato de tres pollos accompanied by delicious black beans ($19.00), on the other hand, weighed in with two hits and a miss. The two chicken and cheese enchiladas and the poblano and tequila-lime marinated chicken with mango salsa were both excellent. However, the grilled chicken breast mole was dry and overcooked, and the mole tasted decidedly acrid. But, in all fairness, this was the only glitch encountered in several pleasant visits...

And desserts are right back on target. At the top of my list is a superlative banana burrito ($5.50), four crispy segments surrounding an epicenter of chocolate ice cream; coming in a close second is the Mexican rice pudding crowned with a dollop of vanilla bean gelato and squiggles of chocolate sauce ($5.00). The tres leches ($5.00), a moist white cake saturated with whole, evaporated, and condensed milk and finished with a whipped cream icing, is also quite good; and the wonderful Jersey-grown blueberry tangle ($5.50) is suitable for sharing.

Tortilla Press isn't perfect... I mean, what restaurant is? But if you're on the prowl for impeccably fresh Mexican fare served up at more than reasonable prices in a casually convivial atmosphere, this colorful, energetic eatery is hard to beat.

Cuisine: Mexican
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; Sunday Brunch: 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more only
Parking: Street parking; nearby municipal parking lots
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive/Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: http://www.thetortillapress.com.

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