Keeping it Real

Tortuga’s Mexican Village in Princeton

By Leslie Mitchner // Tortuga’s Photography by Andrew Wilkinson

Princeton Review of Tortuga'sHow sad indeed that most people know Mexican food only as purveyed by restaurant chains and franchises. The first of these, of course, was Taco Bell, founded in Downey, California in 1962 and now a multibillion-dollar international business and the sixth most successful fast-food chain in the country. Then there are the higher priced alternatives with their wider menu selections and predictable kitschy decor: Acapulco, Burritoville, Chili’s, Chipotle, On the Border, Qdoba (which we now have in Princeton), and many others. I have to admit while disparaging these places, however, that if I am forced to eat fast food of any kind, Mexican or Southwestern inevitably would be my choice. Perhaps that is because I grew up in Los Angeles, where the combo platter of enchiladas, tacos, rice, and beans was a mainstay and Casa Cienega was our neighborhood restaurant.

The proliferation of the chains, with their reduction of Mexico’s ancient and sophisticated cooking traditions, has led to what you might call a bit of a food fight led by Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA and contributor to the August issue of Saveur with a humorous and nostalgic article on burritos, the menu highlight of so many fast-food joints. “No one knows who invented the burrito,” he claims, and outside of the States it “exists in earnest only in Northern Mexico.” In a recent National Public Radio interview, Arellano seemed not only to be fixated on the historical origins of Mexican dishes but also on questions of ownership and authenticity. What came across in his remarks was resentment of even Diana Kennedy’s half-century devotion to regional Mexican cooking in nearly a dozen books and Rick Bayless’s efforts to keep those traditions alive and delicious in all of our kitchens. Although he mocked the term “gringo” (“only a gringo would use the word”), it seemed Arellano was drawing a line in the sand, as if to say that Kennedy and Bayless are food imperialists, however earnest they may be. Who owns Mexican food? Does it matter if it’s good?

The Tortoise

Soon after we moved to Princeton long ago, we were delighted to discover Mexican Village II on Leigh Avenue, which was owned by Panamanian-born Ruth Alegria, who now runs a cooking school in Mexico City. What a relief after the tortilla wasteland that then was Michigan, where I had been in graduate school. Here we found the traditional combo plates of my childhood and very good chiles rellenos, mole and other sauces, and a funky fun atmosphere, even if it did get awfully noisy in the cramped space. At some point, Jennifer Jefferis came on the scene as a waitress. She had been stationed in El Paso, Texas in the army, where she did a lot of kitchen duty and learned how to cook Tex-Mex. She says that she was such a slow waitress that she was nicknamed the turtle (tortuga in Spanish), as in the tortoise and the hare. When she took over the restaurant in 1996, she renamed it Tortuga’s Mexican Village.

In 2011 the restaurant moved across the street from its former location, where the very good Cafe 44 (same ownership) took its place. The new space on two levels is fresh, colorful, open, and humorously decorated with iron work, ceramic, painted, and etched glass tortoises in abundance. Even the row of tortoise-shell-like mini tiles that stretch like a chair rail around the main dining room echoes the theme. The mural of a Mexican village that had filled a wall across the street was re-installed in the seating area on the upper level, where a more private table sits on an enclosed balcony overlooking the street. The new decor and space are a huge improvement and make you feel good the minute you enter, as do the friendly greeting at the door and the cheerful service at the table.

The items on the menu are for the most part familiar but they are cooked with flair. Here you will find quesadillas (peculiarly described, perhaps for novices, as “Mexican pizza with your choice of filling”), fajitas, chimichangas, burritos, enchiladas, chalupas, flautas, tacos, tostadas, and tamales and three kinds of sauce (roja that can be mild or hot, verde that is spicy, and the delicious mole with a touch of chocolate and hints of cinnamon). There are also huevos cooked in a variety of ways, sandwiches served on rolls, vegetarian variations of most items, salads, and guacamole or nachos to start. The restaurant has always been known for its excellent chiles rellenos poblanos. Among the especialidades de casa are chipotle shrimp (marinated in a smoky jalapeno cream sauce), enchiladas Oaxaca (marinated pork tenderloin broiled and wrapped in tortillas, then baked in a fresh vegetable sauce with cheese), enchiladas de mar (shrimp and crab sauteed in salsa verde and cream and wrapped in tortillas, lightly covered with cheese and baked), pescado Acapulco (catfish marinated in lime and cilantro, then broiled, served with brown rice and fresh sauteed vegetables), and creamy chipotle chicken (grilled marinated chicken in chipotle sauce served over rice with sides).

Whether you are new to Tex-Mex food or not, you will find something very much to your liking and it will bear no resemblance to anything you would get at a fast-food chain. With good reason, Tortuga’s was named the second-best Mexican restaurant in New Jersey in 2001 and a best buy in Zagat the same year. Here is what the restaurant says about itself: “It may be thousands of miles from Mexico, but the food is as authentic as you can get.” There is that word again. No, Jefferis and her small staff do not grow and grind the corn or dry the chiles, or even make the tortillas, but the cooking is excellent, the ingredients are fresh, and the effort is honest, as well as consistent. The motto on the wall is “The fondest memories are made when gathered around the table.” Surely this is true when the effort is so personal and, yes, so authentic.

This story first appeared in Princeton Magazine