Carlos O’Connor’s Tijuana nacho platter is served on a funky, tie-dye clothed table. (Photo by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
By SUSAN ERICSON
A mainstay on Monmouth Street in Red Bank, Carlos O’Connor’s Mexican Restaurant seems to be standing the test of time due in part to the vibrant, celebratory, mismatched decor that delivers an instant party atmosphere.
PieHole stopped in and found that the newest owner, Hugo Parades, has made a few changes to the dining room by opening a wall that divided the restaurant into two closed off rooms, giving the space a brighter, less claustrophobic feel.
Another change: it’s now open for lunch on weekends.
Kaleidoscopic decor in the dining room includes mismatched tablecloths, dishware and whimsical artwork. Black bean soup, below. (Photos by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
Known to many as “Carlos,” a sombrero-wearing Irish-American from Rahway named Steve O’Connor opened the restaurant in 1995. He sold it about 10 years later to his good friend Martin Kolator, who in turn sold it about a year ago to Parades.
“I count the years by the number of Cinco de Mayo’s I’ve celebrated,” says Ashley Houck, a senior at Red Bank Regional who’s has coming here since she was a little girl — and waiting tables here for almost five years now. “That’s the busiest day of the year here.”
Houck points out the improvements Parades has made to the place, such as a new floor, new ceiling and menus fresh from the printer. He’s also added weekly specials to the original menu, she tells us.
Our meal began with complimentary bowls of crunchy chips and a salsa so mild in both flavor and heat that it could easily be served to those convalescing in the hospital. It’s essentially chopped wet tomatoes with a hint of cilantro.
Fortunately, the neutral salsa was not a sign of things to come. Our order of black bean soup ($4.95), a big dinner-size bowlful, was seasoned with a little more oomph and a healthy sprinkle of creamy jack cheese.
A menu staple at most Mexican-American restaurants, nachos tend to be a hodgepodge of toppings served on commercial tortilla chips. The dish, invented by Ignacio Anaya specifically for his American customers, is not usually eaten by those living south of the border.
The Tijuana Nachos ($9.75) here are aesthetically pleasing and provide a unique ingredient: they’re topped with a choice of chopped chicken, beef, bean or veggie. At Houck’s suggestion, we opted for the chicken.
Pickled jalapenos brought the chili heat we’re looking for, while peaks of whipped sour cream can be scooped up to cool down a mouthful. Tiny bits of grilled chicken, a big spoonful of guacamole, and plenty of melted Monterey jack cheese fulfilled the checklist of typical nacho ingredients. But the pretty pink slivers of house-made pickled onions were unexpected, and added a zippy excitement to the dish.
We wondered how anyone could possibly eat more after consuming the nacho appetizer. More than a meal in itself, it was a filling lunch for two.
Carlos O’Connor’s is open for lunch Saturday and Sunday at noon, plans to open on Fridays in the near future, we’re told. They have no specific lunch menu.