Thursday, December 2, 2010

Eating out in the Chesters: Grace Cafe and Aztek Nights

For good food, good vibes and a restaurant that transforms when the clock hits 3 p.m., look no further than Mama's Grace Cafe, tucked deep in the heart of Chester at 52 Main St. Rear.

"Like it says on our menu, we're the coolest place in town," says co-owner Steve Berstler, who shares the place with his partner, Sarah Borda.

What makes Mama's Grace so cool is that it's literally two restaurants in one. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays and Fridays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends, it's the colorful and good-vibrations-filled Mama's Grace Cafe, which serves great breakfasts and lunches for the health conscious and anyone who just want to forget the calories and enjoy a hearty meal.

"We have 60 items, and it's a healthy or not menu," Berstler says. "Burgers or tofu — and everything in between."

But when that clock hits 3 p.m., it becomes an enticing, Mexican-themed restaurant, Aztek Nights, which — if you count the authentic Mexican and the Tex Mex options — makes this friendly place more like three restaurants in one, instead of two.

"It's a Mexican restaurant, and we serve Mexican food from our native countries," says Alex Mejia, who runs the shop with his wife, Diana. "A lot of our stuff is imported from Mexico that you can't find in the United States, like certain herbs and spices. And we have fresh cactus."


"It's like flaxseed," Mejia says. "That's where flax seed comes from. So instead of getting the flaxseed, you're getting the actual vegetable. That's what it is, a vegetable."

Skeptical, I tried it and found that it's actually very tasty, especially when paired with onions and cheese. Co-owner Steve Berstler agrees.

"I eat that all the time," Berstler says. "When I first started eating, you guys were putting it with my food, and now I want it all the time. And it's very good for digestion. It's a healthy item."

Also worth tasting are the carnitas, which offer a good portion of roasted pork, beans and rice, and some tortillas to wrap them up in — all for a good price.

"We keep our meals under $20 because it's tough out there for people to dine out with a lot of family," Mejia says. "So all our dishes are less than $20."

With enchiladas, tacos and flan, Aztek Nights features many of the items — authentically Mexican and Tex Mex style — you might not find on many other menus. But there's one item in particular that might be hard to find elsewhere.

"We have Mexican soups," Diana Mejia says. "And a lot of people have been asking for something that is called Menudo. It's very famous in Mexico and it's very good for the hangover. So a lot of customers (who) have been to Mexico come in on Saturday and they say, 'Do you have Menudo?' and we were like, no, but now, we're making it."

Co-owner Sarah Borda gets a kick out of this and adds, "It's BYOB here, so you can drink and then have Menudo."

You'll also find "safe" items such as burgers and chicken fingers for the kids in case they aren't up to the many flavorful options offered on the menu.

But as impressive and different as Aztek Nights sounds, let's not forget that Mama's Grace has some interesting items on its menu, too, especially in the soup department.

"We have a variety of soups," Berstler says. "We have our world-famous three bean vegetable chili, chicken tortilla, chicken and rice, chicken and noodle, a very, very veggie, and (even) North African Spice soup.

"The North African Spice soup is a bunch of different vegetables," Berstler says. "Chick peas."

"Carrots," Borda chimes in. "Carrots," Berstler agrees. "Celery, tomatoes, onions, potatoes."

"But what makes it so unique are the spices," Borda says.

"Yeah, the spices," Berslter agrees. "There's saffron, turmeric and cinnamon, all mixed together. It's delicious."

Along with their eclectic and delicious combined menus, the owners are pitching in toward a good cause.

"The Wishing Wall is something special both restaurants are doing right now," Borda says. "This is to benefit the Chester Food Pantry. Every year we do a benefit for them, and this year, everybody gets to buy a wish for a dollar. And you can slap it up on the wall."

"All the money — 100 percent — goes to the Chester Food Pantry," Berstler says.

One of Borda's favorite things about now sharing the restaurant with with the Mejia family is that they're serving the people of Chester as a team.

"We have two families serving the families in the area, and it's nice to mix the cultures," Borda says. "When people find out we have this collaboration going, they're like, 'Wow, what a great idea,' especially in these economic times."

ADDRESS: 52 Main St. Rear, Chester
TELEPHONE NUMBER: 908-879-5044
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends
CUISINE: Mama's Grace Cafe: Breakfast burritos, grilled sandwiches, soups, salads; Aztek Nights: Quesadillas, Mexican sandwiches, tacos
PRICE RANGE: Egg platters, $9; daily soups, $5.50; quesadillas, $6.99; carnitas, $16.99
PAYMENT: Cash, Visa, Mastercard
DRESS: Casual
THE SCENE: Large enough for parties but small enough to be comfy, Mama's Grace has an excellent layout.
ATMOSPHERE: This cheerful restaurant is as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the belly, as artwork and an array of colorful tables and chairs fill the nice-sized space.
PARKING: In the lot
OWNERS: Steve Berstler and Sarah Borda

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