Summer, 1999. Your typical humid evening. The breeze starts to kick in a little bit. Not much but enough to make walking bearable. A couple strolls out from their parked 1991 Mitsubishi Galant into one of their favorite restaurants. In hand, a baby carrier. A new life is ahead of them. They sit down at one of the salmon reddish tables surrounded by wooden walls and the dim colorful lights. One of them orders enchiladas and the other, tacos al carbon.
They sit, chat, and bust each other’s chops but never stop thinking about what their bustling future is going to look like. Over the course of twenty four years they would continue coming back to the home of sizzling Mexican steaks and cheesy enchiladas. As for their aforementioned child, that kid would happen to be the one writing this very article.
I happen to have inherited the same appreciation they had for a little restaurant called Puerto Vallarta. Located on 78th and Kennedy Boulevard, this little Mexican restaurant has been serving the community for over thirty five years. Opened in the late 80s by Eloy Villa, Puerto Vallarta has been a small little staple of the uptown North Bergen area for three decades. One that I essentially grew up in. Mr. Villa is from Puebla, México. Far from the actual Puerto Vallarta, which is located in Jalisco, on the western coast. Despite this, the restaurant’s atmosphere is very indicative of its namesake.
When I was a kid — not that long ago — my family and I would flood to this place to laugh and reminisce on the old days. Those old days, now even older days. Eloy would always sit in the same spot at the end of the bar, as he does to this day. Quietly helping where needed and keeping a close eye on things. His laid back demeanor perpetuates throughout the restaurant. There’s a relaxed and almost summer-like ambiance in this place. It feels demurely coastal despite it being located on a sleepy block in even sleepier New Jersey.
Winter doesn’t change that fact either. I remember being very young and running from the skin pinching cold into the beachy arms of this place. Funny enough, when I first started eating here, I didn’t actually eat anything off the menu. Being a professional toddler, my choices were pretty limited. My parents decided for me. They would bring in my Gerber baby food and the kitchen would heat it up for me. After a while of this I upgraded to eating exclusively yellow rice. Very fancy. Hell, sometimes I’d show up with McDonald’s and do my own thing while my family munched away at actual food.
As of writing this I can report, with confidence, that I no longer possess such a shitty pallet. I actually eat things that aren’t exclusively sides now. My go-to is the infamously delicious churrasco. A beast of a steak but not in size; in flavor. It’s arguably one of the best skirt steaks I’ve had from anywhere nearby. There are some other contenders but none that come very close. Presentation is also key and man, do they impress. It’s not uncommon to have a churrasco delivered on a sizzling platter but it absolutely heightens the whole experience.
Even the little things like the chips and salsa somehow manage to be the best in the game. When I say their salsa is unparalleled, that’s still selling it short. I’ve had friends I’ve introduced to Puerto Vallarta drive out half an hour just for chips and dip. Devotion is earned and this little restaurant earns it quickly.
Another close friend of mine, a Texas native, sat down to eat with me here for the first time about five years ago. We picked a table by the front window nestled comfortably right into the corner. I distinctly remember him saying “I’ve eaten at Mexican restaurants near and practically right on the border. It’s going to take a lot to impress me”. He ordered the chimichangas and promptly shut the fuck up. A testament to authenticity.
Puerto Vallarta has been the location of many notable memories throughout my life. Some tragic, most dulcet and many first dates which can fall into either category. But the majority of these sweet recollections are memories of my late family. Particularly my grandparents. There’s plenty of photographs stored away in dusty photo albums that were taken in that place. Many with me smiling next to the loved ones I miss so dearly. People who have long left life behind, leaving me only with their soulful echoes. The storied anecdotes of their day to day lives still reverberating in those walls. Only to say hello once again when that front door squeaks open. A cherished reminder that home isn’t too far away. It’s always right around the corner.