Sizing up the orange gonads sitting astride the guacamole, my business partner, Liz, asked, "so...do we just mix it in?" A nod in the affirmative came from Adam Rose, 32, chef/owner of Villalobos in Montclair.
Seated at the counter, overlooking the open kitchen during a #tacotuesday lunch service, we stirred in the orange gonads of a the hedgehog of the sea, grabbed a freshly fried chip and dug in. Faintly sweet, semi-briny, uni is like ocean-flavored custard. If that wasn't strange enough, the orange sex organs look like thick, floppy cat tongue, and the flavor hangs out on the palate a bit like peanut butter.
So, why add it to guacamole? "I'm trying to create an image and some staples here," says Rose, "when I put traditional guacamole on the menu, I wanted to offer another version more my speed. The subtle smoke from the tomatillos and creamy sea water flavor from the sea urchin worked well together."
Rose, a Nutley native, was trained in French and traditional American cuisine. He was heavily influenced by local chefs, Ryan DePersio (Fascino, Battello) and Mike Carrino (Pig & Prince), as well as the Italian culinary influence in Essex County. But Rose chose Mexican because of his "love for the culture, history, people, and food. Also, I want my brand to grow much past 6 S. Fullerton ave. I think I can be more successful selling tacos then hot dogs or burgers."
About selling those tacos. Rose's crew is currently making about 600 tortillas a day, all by hand, from imported Mexican masa. Of the 8 tacos currently on the menu at Villalobos, the AL PASTOR with adobo roasted pork, cilantro, and onion ($4), and BARBACOA with barbeque beef rib, pickled carrot, avocado ($5), both encased in soft, supple tortillas were most outstanding. The CARNITAS, a cola braised pork belly, with corn, cotija, and ancho ($5) were also very good. I'm not an easy sale on vegetarian items, but I was pleasantly surprised by the sweet/savory effect of the VERDURAS with poblano, corn, maitake, and queso fresco ($4).
The taco that came most highly recommended to me was LENGUA. Dominate by the beefy-and-then-some flavor of beef tongue, the taco is peppered with chipotle and a touch of pistachio ($5). If you're into tongue, you'll love it. Me? I'll stick with Mr. Al Pastor.
Also in the taco offering are TINGA, a chili braised chicken with padron, cilantro, and onion ($4), PESCADO, a beer battered fish with cabbage, serrano, and crema, and CAMARONES, grilled shrimp with jicama, romaine, and cherry tomato salsa ($5).
The antojitos (snacks), like the ESQUITES, are absolutely delicious. The servings are enough to share between two people, but I wouldn't advise it - you'll want to eat it all yourself. The same for crudos, like the TOSTADAS DE ATUN with yellowfin mixed with cubed watermelon, and sesame, and especially the fresh and tangy CEVICHE BLANCO with American snapper, squash blossoms and fresno peppers ($11).
Rose is reluctant to pose for a picture (that's just not his thing), but he's more than eager to hablar del trabajo <talk shop, wink wink>. Whacking an avocado in half, Rose will discuss Mexican culinary adventures, or the history of a certain dish, or the origin of a method. The respect Rose has for his craft - a foreign craft - is tangible. If you get him talking about mezcal (just don't call it tequila) he might produce a small clay bowl, which he made by hand in Mexico, at a mezcal distillery, for the specific purpose of drinking mezcal. So, for the doubters, even if Rose isn't Mexican, there's a good chance this Nutley-born chef was Oaxacan in a former life.