A few months ago, I caught an episode of Rick Bayless’ Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Rick makes Mojo de Ajo, a garlic infused oil, by slowly cooking tons of garlic with fruity olive oil and a good amount of lime in the oven, until the oil is infused and the garlic pieces are caramelized and golden and have lost all of their aggressive oniony bite. It is, as Rick Bayless says, liquid gold.
In the episode, Rick talks about mojo de ajo being served over shrimp all across Mexico. But even though I’d been on the lookout for it, having made (and loved) my own liquid gold almost as soon as I shut off the TV, I hadn’t come across the dish anywhere in New Jersey — that is, until this past weekend, when Jim and I went to Casa Maya, in High Bridge, and found ourselves devouring shrimp smothered in the garlicky, slightly sweet, slightly tart oil, with lots of bread on the side for dipping. It was the waitresses favorite dish in the restaurant, and mine too.
I’d been hearing about Casa Maya, in Northern Hunterdon county, for a while now. I hadn’t been there because Real Mexican? In Hunterdon County? but the name kept coming up, so we went out for a beautiful ride Friday night, arriving at Casa Maya — a red, barn-like building that sits high on a hill overlooking the town.
Casa Maya has the look of a restaurant that serves good food but has fallen some over the years. The place is far from spotless. All the workers seem under 17. The tablecloths are all plastic and dingy, and the lighting is low, shades drawn, giving the whole place a sort of dank quality, even though it was sunny and gorgeous outside.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t go there. For one, they’ve got mojo de ajo, or as they call it, camarones al ajillo. The sauteed shrimp sit in a bath of the garlic infused oil, with a charred dried chile and pickled jalapenos for more flavor. A great way to start the meal, it went beautifully with an impressive order of quesadillas: simple, but thoughtfully constructed and adorned. Fresh, crunchy tortillas, layered with enough cheese to be satisfying but not so much as to sog up the tortilla, sat under a generous sprinkling of black olives and pickled jalapenos. We ordered chorizo with our quesadillas, and suggest you do the same. The chorizo they use is perfectly spicy and rich; I’m sure the chorizo tasting appetizer would be great. (We actually could have ended our meal right there, or gone straight to dessert, and been really happy — and not overstuffed — with the experience.)
Casa Mayo is a BYO, so you can crack open a few beers in one of the nicely private booths, order a few appetizers, and cover all your food with the outstandingly powerful green hot sauce next to the salt and pepper shakers.
We weren’t thrilled with our main courses. Jim’s combination platter was too jumbled together — we had a hard time telling which was the enchilada, which the tamale — and the beef in my tacos was dry. I did, however, have a bite of pulled pork from Jim’s dish, and I wish I had ordered that for my taco. The rice and refried beans were also pretty good, just what they are supposed to be.
The tres leche cake almost took the cake for me (I might even have liked it better than the shrimp). Perfectly soggy, having soaked up all that sweetened condensed milk, it was actually the best tres leches cake I’ve had (and I’ve had my share). Particularly lovely about this cake was the cinnamon and maple syrup drizzled around the side. I don’t think I’ll ever want another piece of tres leches cake without either the syrup or the cinnamon again.
Highbridge is worth a detour if you are passing nearby, if only to see the darling little town. And if you do go, stop by Casa Maya from some liquid gold.
1 Main Street
High Bridge, NJ
Dress: Anything goes
Suggested Dishes: Camarones al Ajillo (Shrimp in Garlic Oil), Quessadila, Chorizo, Tres Leches Cake
Robin Damstra is the Regional Editor for Hunterdon and Mercer Counties. She graduated Douglass College at Rutgers University, where she majored in English. She began teaching herself to cook in 2006. In 2007, she started her food blog, Caviar and Codfish where she shares her culinary discoveries and gorgeous food photography. She currently lives in Stockton, New Jersey.