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the market crash of 2008 and the subsequent recession, took a heavy toll on
the cafe’s business. By last February,
Cuneo-Powell was reeling. “With the
economy, I just wasn’t making it,” she
told me after my visits.
At that point, Ramos, who had
learned Mexican cooking from her
mother in San Lucas, suggested they
turn the café into a Mexican restaurant
that would attract the Voorhees area’s
burgeoning Mexican population.
“It was either that, or close completely,” Cuneo-Powell told me.
The women temporarily closed
the café, repainted it themselves in
bright citrus tones, and reopened
two months later as El Mariachi San
Lucas. The initial results were disappointing. On my first visit last spring,
guacamole was undersalted and over-puréed. The Mariachi salad (mango,
strawberries, apples and grapes over
greens in a tequila-mango dressing)
was so sweet it should have been
called a dessert. Ramos’s mother sent
the women a supply of dark mole po-blano from San Lucas, but it couldn’t
save an overcooked duck breast with
Returning in May, I found a
restaurant in tune with the catchy
traditional music it’s named for. The
servers, all new, were friendly and adept at explaining the food in English.
“Anna wanted to work with people
who understood her cuisine,” said
Cuneo-Powell, 48, now co-owner with
Ramos, but no longer cooking.
Ramos, the chef, was serving po-zole—a classic Mexican hominy stew—
pungent with oregano and bay leaf. Her
excellent chilaquiles, crisp corn tortillas
simmered in salsa verde till soft, were
topped with crema, cotija cheese and
seared chicken breast cut in strips.
Ramos makes a terrific dish of na-chos layered so that each chip touches
one of the several components: refried
beans, pico de gallo, avocado, queso
fresco, sour cream and Oaxaca cheese.
Smoky guajillo salsa gave crisp fried
calamari a Latino accent. In a tender
quesadilla, fresh mint countered the in-
tense umami of huitlacoche (a naturally
occurring corn fungus regarded as a
delicacy in Mexico). Ramos brightened
a simple crab salad with jalapeño, ci-
lantro and lime. She even redeemed her
guacamole with proper seasoning and
thicker, chunkier texture.
Asked about her cooking, the soft-
spoken Ramos, 33, told me, “It’s a little
bit of my mom’s recipes, a little bit of
what I learned from Marianne and a
little bit of my own.”
Shrimp enchiladas with guajillo
salsa had much more flavor than the
chicken enchiladas with salsa verde.
The smoky guajillo salsa enriched
pan-roasted chicken San Lucas. Chick-
en Mexicano, topped with crabmeat
and Oaxaca cheese, was dressed in a
creamy puréed red salsa that com-
bined the elegant texture of béchamel
with the pep of chile de arbol—a suc-
cessful mingling of Ramos and Cuneo-
Powell’s contrasting backgrounds.
Molcajete, on the other hand, is all
Mexican. Served in a blazing-hot vol-
canic rock bowl, it came to the table
bubbling, a perfectly cooked stew of
chicken, steak, pork, shrimp, salsa
verde, nopales (strips of roasted cac-
tus paddle), queso fresco and avocado.
The bowl comes with house-made soft
corn tortillas for do-it-yourself tacos.
Desserts are so good, you won’t
want to share them. Tequila replaces
rum in an awesome bananas Foster
with strawberries. But the moist, deli-
cious, white-chocolate bread pudding
and the dense brownie sundae are
Anxious not to alienate mainstream
customers, the restaurant lets you
substitute mashed potatoes for rice and
beans on any entrée. It’s an unfortunate
concession, and possibly unnecessary.
According to Cuneo-Powell, a new cadre
of repeat customers is developing. Person-
ally, I doubt they’re the mashed potatoes
kind. “Every week,” she said, “is getting
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