Cozy El Coyote

The 36-seat EHT establishment prides itself on the highest-quality products carefully blended and scrupulously maintained.

By Frank Gabriel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 12, 2013

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Latino cuisine — particularly that of Mexico — has expanded dramatically in our region over the course of the last few years, mirroring southern New Jersey’s shifting demographics. Nowhere is that more evident than in Egg Harbor Township, where a state-mandated housing growth policy has translated into a huge influx of immigrants, many from the lands to our south.

At the intersection of Ocean Heights Avenue and Zion Road, hidden within a strip mall next to Cumberland Farms, El Coyote Southwest Grill opened in November 2011.

Replacing the former, unsuccessful occupant — which also vended Mexican food — meant coming up with a bill of fare that pays homage to culinary tradition while providing options for less adventurous diners. Owned and operated by Tom and Mary Corona and their three sons Jared, Josh and Jordan, the family’s enterprise “has always been a dream of my husband,” says Mary.

Mary, formerly the assistant director of food and beverage at Blue Heron Pines Country Club, and Tom, an insurance industry professional employed by Brett Balsley, were visited with a fortuitous opportunity shortly after taking possession of the property. Armando and Lili Lino, he a professional cook and she with a family background from Puebla (considered to be the epicenter of the Mexican culinary universe) showed up at their door looking for work.

Together with Jared, a veteran of numerous local kitchens — including Back Bay Ale House, the Melting Pot and Rainforest Café — the trio crafted El Coyote’s extensive menu. Many of the house specialties, like guacamole and refried beans, plus formulas for marinades and sauces, were largely derived from either Lili or Armando’s heritage recipes.

Armando, whose family owns an avocado growing business in Mexico, brought signature creations of his own, like a chicken apple quesadilla, loaded with sweet fruit sautéed with a hint of coconut rum, caramelized onions and cheese. While Jared serves as chef and manages the kitchen daily, Mary tells us that the Linos are “here five days a week,” and that “everything is made fresh every day.”

The cozy eatery (just 36 seats) allows them the luxury of preparing food that is the equivalent of small batch brewing. The highest-quality products are carefully blended and scrupulously maintained, right down to the sourcing of three crucial ingredients — avocados, jalapenos and poblano peppers — all grown in Mexico and purchased from a Passaic, New Jersey-based import company called Oaxaca Mexico Products.

This time of year, Lili’s hand extends to beverages as well. She blends a trio of refreshing, summery drinks called “tamarindo,” “horchat” and “Jamaica” for sale in the restaurant. The first is based on tamarind, a sweet-sour tropical fruit that is also a primary ingredient in Worcestershire sauce; the second a smooth, creamy delight derived from rice; and the final a fruity red punch steeped from hibiscus flowers.

Despite such able assistance, Mary insists that Jared remains the driving force behind El Coyote, even working the front-of-the-house during particularly busy moments. Visiting briefly in the tiny, well-organized kitchen, we watched as he quickly prepared an off-the-menu special request called “chilaquiles” for the Latino employees at another nearby restaurant.

This dish, often served at breakfast, consists of fresh tortilla chips cooked until soft in a zesty green chile sauce, loaded with the essence of fresh tomatillos. After repeated dousing with the “verde” sauce, the chips return to their original soft texture and then get finished with layers of shredded lettuce, sour cream, lime juice and salt.

The best part of this process: five minutes after the initial order is picked up, another staffer from the neighboring business came knocking at the back kitchen door, requesting a pair of additional orders. You know you are doing something very well when stuff like this happens.

Other favorites from Jared’s repertoire include an appetizer of mussels Oaxaca; the mollusks cooked in a blend of white wine, butter, garlic, broth and lime, and enchiladas of chicken, pork or beef. More recently, five different pizzas were added to the menu, including Tequila Lime, with avocado, jalapeno ranch dressing, cheeses, lettuce, and grilled chicken tossed in tequila lime sauce; and Bay Man, with oil, garlic, cheese, grilled asparagus, diced tomato, green onion and jumbo lump crab.

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