By SUSAN ERICSON
Even with the air conditioning blasting on a summer day, the rustic dining room of Juanito’s Restaurant in Red Bank envelopes you in sun-kissed warmth.
Celebrating his 20th year in business at the corner of Monmouth and West streets, owner Juan Torres works with local artists to brighten the space’s rustic brick walls. His plan to keep the place colorful, fun and inviting is immediately evident. But it’s the delicious, spicy food that packs the entrance any given night.
Sopa de Tortilla at Juanito’s Restaurant. (Photo by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
Lunchtime, however, hews to a more relaxed pace, allowing for time to linger if schedules permit.
A molcajete-shaped bowl, filled with mild salsa and a basket of tortilla chips, arrives at the table with menus, offering famished diners something to nibble on while deciding what to order.
We started with a bowl of Sopa de Tortilla ($5), a mild tomato and chicken broth-flavored soup. With a squeeze of lime and a few shakes of hot sauce, the soup – filled with shredded chicken, vegetables and topped with a small mountain of crunchy tortilla chips – was delectable.
Hoping for some authentic flavor, we split the Platillo Altamirano ($13), named for a little town in Mexico, from the specials menu.
Piled high with three grilled shrimp, two plump baby lamb chops, and a lobster tail arranged on a bed of fresh spinach and topped with mushrooms, peppers and a hot chipotle sauce, this dish brought the heat. Seriously spicy, it’s not for a timid palate. The tame sides – plain rice flecked with bits of corn and grilled mixed vegetables – brought a tastebud-calming note to the meal.
In addition to the inside dining area, which features festive, brightly-painted chairbacks, Juanito’s sports a good-sized patio that can be enjoyed in nice weather.
Juanito’s is open seven days a week, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. for dinner. It’s BYOB, so bring the cerveza and vino with you.