We were getting in the spicy Cinco de Mayo mood, so we picked a peck of peppers at Escondido Mexican Cuisine & Tequila Bar. This has been a popular spot for a long time, and it’s a great choice for those who like their Mexican food a little more traditional and not too spicy. You open the doors to the wonderful aroma of sizzling entrées and fresh fried tortilla chips. To your left is a big bar with a dining area. To your right is the main dining room with comfortable tables and plenty to look at, whether your view is the airy, open-beamed ceiling or the busy courtyard outside. There is a steady stream of casually clad, friendly customers.
After we enjoyed a big basket of housemade tortilla chips with two tingly dipping sauces, Fred, our server, cheerfully guided us through our selections. We ordered a round of margaritas to start – blood orange, prickly pear and a frozen raspberry. Each was pretty and packed a punch, so pace yourself, even though they’re tasty enough to drink quickly. We started off with three appetizers. Our first was the Birria Beef Bao Buns. This Chinese steamed bun sandwich is a little out of place on the Mexican table, but the guajillo-braised beef short ribs, pickled red onion, sliced avocado and smoked jalapeño aioli made it a welcome guest. I really enjoyed it. Our next was Yucca Fries. Yucca is the edible root of the cassava and is popular in most South American countries. These fries are always cut into thick planks. They fry up crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, and though they are mildly flavored, be careful of the dipping sauce which is a thermometer buster. Our third appetizer was the Chicken Flautas which Fred told us was a favorite, and we could see why. These crispy rolls are light, flaky and full of shredded chicken, served with sour cream and a sweet salsa.
For an entrée, diner one chose the Spicy Grilled Jumbo Shrimp, which comes with rice and beans. She likes spice, and she turned up the heat even more with some of that yucca sauce. Be sure to ask for yours extra spicy if you like the heat. She enjoyed the lighter dish, especially after those appetizers. Between her dish and the sizzling shrimp fajitas at the next table, it’s clear they do shrimp well, which is exactly what diner two said about his Shrimp Quesadilla. He ranked it among the best he has had in a while and said it was full of flavor and well-cooked.
Diner three had the Baja Bowl. It’s an elevated Chipotle-style dish with rice, black beans, avocado, pico de gallo, scallions and Mexican cheeses with a topper of chipotle mayo and crema. Served in a big bowl, this dish is a whopper that she enjoyed for lunch the next day.
I had the always popular Chimichanga. Mine was steak, but you can choose ground beef, chicken and even that delicious shrimp. It’s everything you expect in a Chimichanga, crispy fried with melted Mexican cheese and rice and beans on the side.
For dessert, we chose a traditional Mexican fried ice cream, but we ramped it up with their fried Oreo variety, which is a softball-sized serving of vanilla ice cream rolled in Oreo cookie crumbs, flash fried and placed on a crispy cinnamon tortilla, dressed with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. It’s a pretty plate that looks like just as much fun as it is to share. It’s a nice dessert for the kids too. Our second was a Tres Leches Cake: a dense, moist, milk-based vanilla layer cake, popular in Mexican restaurants. This one comes with caramel drizzle and big, juicy berries. It’s satisfying and not too sweet. Desserts are good, but if you’re not driving, you may just want to have a frozen drink in its place.
Escondido is a perfect stop if you’re out exploring some of Freehold’s historic spots, visiting someone at CentraState Medical Center or enjoying a shopping day. They have some specials like half-priced Margarita Mondays, buy one get one Taco Tuesdays and fajita Wednesdays, plus happy hours Monday through Friday 11:30 am to 6 pm and Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 4 pm. They also offer catering and outdoor dining, weather permitting. The bathrooms are large and clean. There’s a big parking lot, it’s kid friendly and handicap accessible.
Cost – Low
What we liked – The fun, relaxed atmosphere and comfortable dining room, the beautiful drinks and the surprisingly large beer selection, the big menu and fresh ingredients.
Escondido Mexican Cuisine & Tequila Bar is located at 402 West Main St. in Freehold. 732-577-0200. It is open Sunday through Thursday 11:30 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to 11 pm. EscondidoNJ.com.