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Tortuga's Mexican Village
44 Leigh Avenue
Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 924-5143

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

If you're accustomed to the somewhat rarefied Ivy League air enveloping Princeton's Witherspoon and Nassau Streets & Palmer Square, the area surrounding Tortuga's Mexican Village may give you pause. And the ripped screen adorning the entrance to this establishment doesn't do a great deal to allay your misgivings. Still, certain environmental deficiencies not withstanding, should you have a penchant for comestibles from south-of-the-border, you will undoubtedly find the food to your liking.

Just be prepared... If you're a fanatic for cleanliness, you may find the less than sparkling interior a bit off-putting. Tabletops and menus are tacky to the touch, glasses supplied for your wine or beer (this is a BYOB eatery) are smudged, and baked on granules of dishwashing detergent may cause utensils to adhere to the white paper napkins. The state of the restrooms vacillates between barely adequate and completely disheveled. On our most recent Saturday sojourn, the men's room was an unholy mess... and it was not yet 6:30 in the evening.

Also bear in mind that this joint really packs them in. And since reservations are only accepted for parties of six or more, if you don't want to find yourself outside taking in the less than scenic urban landscape for an extended period while awaiting a table, it is best to come early. No matter what time you arrive, however, you are likely to encounter a seething mass of humanity -- and the clangorous clientele is extremely diverse, to say the least. There's a little of everything here... and that includes a host of restless and rambunctious progeny. Your best defense is to arrive with a group, generate as much noise as humanly possible, and join in the fiesta.

But on to the food... Long-time employee and now owner, Jennifer Jefferis, isn't about to bowl you over with a host of innovative specialties; but her typical amalgam of Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex, and authentic regional Mexican dishes -- apart from one or two minor glitches -- is most satisfying.

You begin, of course, with tortilla chips and an excellent homemade salsa cruda, which possesses just enough zip to invigorate the palate for the good things to come. This complimentary offering, however, is somewhat negated by the fact that the salsa is entirely too watery and is made with tomatoes that, before their dismemberment, had obviously been suffering from a chronic case of anemia. In point of fact, many of the offerings encountered here are garnished with the same Styrofoam-like pretenders. Even in the midst of the Garden State's marvelous growing season, these tasteless imposters are served up ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Among the entremesas, the appetizers, the fresh-from-the-kitchen guacamole dip ($7.95) is something of a must. Rich, chunky, and sporting just the right combo of ingredients -- chopped white onion, chilies, cilantro and lime juice -- to offset the blandness of the avocados, this perky pre-Columbian dish is a winner all the way. A delicious variation on the theme teams up the guacamole with grilled shrimp ($8.95). The crustaceans are lightly spiced, expertly grilled, and set on a bed of freshly shredded lettuce. The only down note is the reappearance of several slices of the aforementioned anemic tomatoes.

Nachos ($7.95), inundated with refried beans and melted cheese, are extremely popular starters here and are served up in prodigious portions. They may also be ordered with guacamole and melted cheese ($8.95); guacamole and refried beans ($8.25); refried beans, ground beef, and melted cheese topped with jalapeños and sour cream ($8.95); or decked out with seafood ($7.95). Whatever your preference, there's more than enough to start two or more diners off on the right foot.

The chili cup ($4.50), refried beans and ground beef topped with lettuce and red sauce, is merely ordinary and could use infinitely more zip. A better choice is the sautéed vegetable quesadilla ($7.25). The vegetables are gently commingled with a variety of spices, served open-faced on a flour tortilla, and topped with cheese, cheese, and more cheese. This is another starter suitable for sharing.

When it comes to entrées, I would urge you to cast your lot with the Especialidades de Casa, specialties of the house. Not only do they deliver a good bang for your buck, they also represent the kitchen's best efforts.

If you happen to be on the prowl for what you would consider this eatery's signature dish, I'd have a go at the chipotle shrimp ($14.95), which are sautéed, set adrift in a smoky jalapeño cream sauce, and served over brown rice with a side of vegetables. My second nominee would be the enchiladas Oaxaca ($11.95), perfectly moist pork tenderloin wrapped in tortillas and baked in a savory vegetable sauce. Both are quite rich and immensely satisfying. Coming in a poor third is the carne Asada ($14.95), grilled skirt steak that has spent time luxuriating in a chipotle marinade. The meat is appropriately flavorful... Unfortunately, it is also inordinately tough.

Among the Cal-Mex offerings, I would highly recommend the "Sante Fe Burrito" ($10.95), a flour tortilla stuffed with sautéed vegetables, refried beans, brown rice, lettuce, sour cream and guacamole. The word burrito means "little burro" in Spanish, referring to the small snacks that originated in northern Mexico. Those encountered in North American eateries, however, border on the gargantuan -- and Tortuga's version is certainly no exception to the rule. Melted cheese completes the picture, along with a zippy tomatillo sauce.

Should you be a do-it-yourselfer, you may give expression to your creative bent by constructing you very own taco, enchilada, tamale, flauta, tostada or burrito. Simply add the appropriate filling and sauce (any two items, $8.95; any three items, $10.95). Once again, bear in mind that portions are generous to a fault.

Desserts are not without merit. The flan ($2.95), baked custard flavored with a touch of cinnamon and sporting a light caramel sauce, is up to the mark. On the other hand, if you're in the mood to share, definitely have a go at the buñuelo ($4.95), a deep-fried flour tortilla embellished with three scoops of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with honey, and gently dusted with cinnamon.

Despite a few shortcomings -- the significantly less than pristine state of the restrooms upon occasion and the fact that the dining room could use a general sprucing up -- Tortuga's bustling brand of south-of-the-border conviviality tends to be rather infectious. And, even though you've undoubtedly sampled better Mexican food in more auspicious surroundings, the generally well-prepared, generous offerings, knowledgeable service, and reasonable prices continue to be big drawing cards.

Cuisine: Mexican
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: CASH ONLY, no credit cards
Attire: Anything goes
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more only
Parking: Limited street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Special: You will also find a Tortuga's located in Trenton and in Collegeville, PA.

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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