Tortuga’s Mexican Village

Large platters of cheese-covered nachos, burritos and

rellenos are a good value and warm comfort food in winter.
By: Faith Bahadurian

Tortuga’s Mexican Village

44 Leigh Ave.


(609) 924-5143

Food: Good
Service: Friendly and efficient
Prices: Inexpensive
Cuisine: Mexican
Ambiance: Very casual; noisy but fun
Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner:
Mon.-Thurs. 5-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat. 5-10 p.m., Sun. 4-9 p.m.

Essentials: No credit cards accepted; BYO; no smoking; wheelchair accessible; reservations taken for parties of six or more.

   A cold winter night proved to be the perfect time for a trip south of the border — to Tortuga’s Mexican Village in Princeton.
   Former employee Jennifer Jefferis bought the place from the original owner in 1996 and, despite its out-of-the-way location, the restaurant has been a popular destination for town and gown for more than 20 years. Arrive early if you don’t want to wait, settle into your chair at one of the simply set tables, and scope out the folksy village mural in the main dining room while you munch on chips and salsa. You can watch the frenetic action in the open kitchen in the back of the room, or avoid the bustle at the door by sitting in the more secluded second dining room to the side.
   With no carpet, linens or upholstered chairs, the noise level escalates when the place is running at full tilt, but you just have to resign yourself to it and have fun, which is exactly what my two companions and I decided to do. Although a party of almost 20 people was seated just before our arrival, the service was amazingly speedy and efficient. I’ve lived in Colorado and one of my companions grew up in New Mexico, so we were especially eager for an authentic taste of the Southwest. We were pleasantly surprised in most respects, and just a bit disappointed in others.
   The lengthy menu encompasses a wide range of Mexican specialties that I think of as Mex-Mex, Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex. There is even a section entitled "Vegetaria Mexicana" with nine vegetarian entrées and the option of brown rice, and a selection of egg dishes that sound delicious and make me wish they served brunch.
   Despite the pale winter tomatoes, the salsa had respectable flavor, although it could be spicier and still not offend most diners. (The first bowl of chips and salsa is complimentary, additional ones cost extra.) From among the "entremesas" (appetizers) we tried the obligatory guacamole dip ($7.95), basic nachos ($7.95) and — because we just couldn’t resist — one pork and one chicken tamale off the combination entrée list ($7.95 without the usual rice and beans on the side). The guacamole, more creamy than chunky, has very good avocado flavor, but two of us wished it had the punch of cilantro and lime.
   The classic nachos especially pleased my New Mexican friend, with creamy refried beans and melted cheese on top of still-crispy tortilla chips. The large oval platter was easy enough for two or three to share. We approached the tamales with some trepidation — this is New Jersey, after all — but were most pleasantly surprised, especially by the pork tamale, which we were thankful our server mentioned, as the menu just lists beef (not as typical) and chicken (which was good but a bit bland).
   Our entrées were generally good. Enchiladas Jalisco ($12.95), from the "carnes" (meat) section, consisted of strips of flavorful skirt steak, onion and green chili, wrapped in a white corn tortilla, baked with ranchero sauce and cheese, and then topped with sour cream. The filling had good flavor, but overall the dish was again too bland for our New Mexico native, even after he requested a saucer of hot sauce that turned out to lack conviction. And the amount of cheese overwhelmed the dish, as it did all of our entrées.
   From the "platos combinados" (combination plates), another member of our party chose the chicken burrito and chile relleno ($11.95). The chicken burrito contained very tender, moist chunks of chicken wrapped in a flour tortilla and topped with enchilada sauce and a dab of guacamole.
   Tortuga’s makes two versions of rellenos, one with poblano chile stuffed with just cheese (more authentic and spicy) and another made with red pepper stuffed with cheese and chicken or beef (in both cases the pepper is roasted and peeled before stuffing). Our diner asked for the poblano version with her burrito, and got a round patty of cheese-stuffed chile dipped in egg batter and fried. Even though we detected that it was time to change the oil, the result was successful, although again there was an excess of cheese, and a red enchilada sauce that tasted more of tomato than red chile. I prefer red sauce with the chile ingredient predominating, but understand that might be too spicy for local palates.
   From the "especialidades de casa" (house specialties), I enjoyed enchiladas del mar ($12.95). Sautéed shrimp and crab (faux crab, I noticed, but did not mind) with good seafood flavor are combined with onions and green sauce that is delicious and somewhat spicy with the heat of roasted jalapeños. Again, too much cheese, but overall it was very good. All entrées come with respectable rice and refried beans, and our iced tea ($1.50), but not our water, was refilled without asking.
   We tried two traditional desserts (both $2.95). Flan was nice and creamy, despite a slightly burnt taste to the caramelized topping. But the dulce de leche (sweet milk) was a strange — though not necessarily unpleasant — surprise. This is milk, cooked down with sugar, until it turns into a thick, light brown mass. I always think of it as a topping for ice cream or maybe breakfast waffles, but here it was served plain in a saucer, which is probably more authentic in old Mexico. We ask our server, who was charming throughout our visit, about it and she told us that customers just eat it right from the spoon, a childish pleasure to be sure. I couldn’t resist stirring some into my very good decaf coffee ($1.50), which makes for an unusual sweetener.
   I really enjoyed my first visit to Tortuga’s Mexican Village since Ms. Jefferis took the helm. The lively crowd encompasses young and old devotees, and the food is a good value. I look forward to a return visit, especially since I am told by Ms. Jefferis that they’ve meanwhile decided to cut back on the cheese. If you want a bit more spice, ask for some roasted jalapeños in your entrée, sure to warm up a cold winter night.
For directions to Tortuga’s Mexican Village, click here.