The timing was almost perfect for a hungry writer who happened to walk past the newest location of Surf Taco, the popular chain of “Coastal Cuisine” restaurants found mostly at the Jersey Shore: the sign on the door read “Opening January 9, 2018.” The date was Monday, Jan. 8.
Truth be told I had been looking for Two Sevens Eatery & Cantina, the latest venture from Jim Nawn’s Fenwick Hospitality Group (Agricola, The Dinky Bar and Kitchen), which I knew had recently opened. Since Fenwick had bought and then closed Main Street Bistro in the Princeton Shopping Center, I had mistakenly assumed that Two Sevens had opened in the same space, and never bothered to fact check myself, nor did I remember that Surf Taco had leased space in the plaza.
So I set my GPS for the actual address for Two Sevens (277 Witherspoon St., adjacent to Avalon Walk), headed there, and made a note in my calendar to return to Surf Taco on Tuesday — today — to check it out.
I wasn’t the only person who had seen the sign on Surf Taco’s door or seen their posts on social media. A steady though not unmanageable crowd was on hand at lunchtime, many of them no doubt past visitors to at least one of the Point Pleasant-based chain’s 11 other locations.
As is customary for Surf Taco, you make your order at the counter before sitting down at a table, and the line was about 10 minutes long. Those who remember the space fondly as the former location of The Taco Truck will probably be glad to see that much of the restaurant’s former design, including the mock Airstream counter and kitchen, has been retained. The Taco Truck closed in May 2017.
As detailed in “The Story of Coastal Cuisine” written in the restaurant’s take-out menu, the food is inspired by the “good food, good people, good vibe” of California, Baja California, Brazil, Hawaii and Costa Rica. Menu headings include Tacos, Burritos, Wraps, Quesadillas and More, Surf Plates, Salads, and Smoothies and Bowls.
I’ve been on a bit of a taco kick lately, so I went for the Combo No. 2, which includes any two tacos (soft shell or hard), beans, rice, chips and salsa, and a fountain drink. The base price is $8.95; there is a $1.25 surcharge for fish or shrimp tacos. Items range on the menu from $3.75 for a single chicken taco to $11.95 for steak or shrimp fajitas to $18.95 for the Tsunami, an enormous double chicken burrito that includes a prize for anyone who can finish it solo in 15 minutes.
I opted for one char-grilled chicken and one “surf” taco (naturally). The total came to $11.06. I paid, scooped up servings of three of the four salsas at the salsa bar, and sat down at one of the few available tables to wait. (I could have sat at the stainless steel counter if all the tables had been occupied.) A woman alone at the table next to me appeared to be catching up on some correspondence. The crowd skewed younger and clearly some of the parties were local college students.
It’s clear that Surf Taco has its formula down. I’ve been a number of times to the locations in Jackson and Red Bank, and even on opening day Princeton was running smooth as smooth can be. Service, atmosphere and food were all reminiscent of the other restaurants in the chain. I was prepared to wait, given the circumstances and the crowd, but my food came out in under 5 minutes.
On my plate were two six-inch, soft corn tortillas overstuffed with their fillings, accompanied by black beans, white rice, freshly fried tortilla chips and a wedge of lime. The surf taco features battered cod with a mild pico de gallo and shredded cabbage. The grilled chicken taco came with shredded lettuce, pico and a sprinkling of grated jack and cheddar cheeses. The surf taco comes with a squirt of their white cilantro sauce. Cilantro haters can relax: the cilantro flavor is extremely mild.
As devotees know, Surf Taco tacos are not spicy. Nor are they particularly heavy, despite being quite large (50 percent larger than Two Sevens, for instance). The batter on the cod was nice, thick rather than crispy, with the cabbage providing all of the crunch. I enjoyed the mix of textures and flavors, but next time I think I might order it “baja style” – which comes with an avocado lime sauce, chipotle mayo and their baja salsa.
The chicken taco was my second favorite on the day. The blackened chicken was slightly on the side of overdone, which can be forgiven on an opening day where everything else was just right, but still had good flavor, peppery with a hint of lime. As I have learned over recent months of eating dozens of tacos, cheese and lettuce are not traditional taco toppings, but then Surf Taco isn’t trying to be traditional. I added some of their hot salsa to my chicken taco because I like it that way. I spritzed both of my tacos with fresh lime, and unless you are citrus averse, I always recommend that you do the same.
The beans and white rice were a satisfying side, nicely portioned, mildly flavored and on the soft side. The tortilla chips were ideal conveyances for all of the salsas. The salsa verde was piquant and mild, the baja salsa smoky and deep flavored. The hot salsa, while not as hot as other hot salsas in the area, still delivered a nice kick, good flavor and good consistency.
Surf Tacos always have a relaxed vibe, and if opening day is any guide, Princeton will be no different. The food was good, the value was good, and the experience was enjoyable. Some Surf Taco items are served in plastic baskets, but my combo came on a sturdy plate, which I’ll admit I emptied pretty thoroughly. As I got up to go I wondered what to do with it, at which point a member of the staff walking toward me simply held out his hands to take it from me. And with that I was out the door and into the cold, full and gratified.
Surf Taco, 301 N. Harrison St., Princeton.