Seaside’s Santeria might just be the coolest restaurant on the Jersey Shore
Step into this restaurant on the Seaside Heights boardwalk entrance at Franklin Avenue, and you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d been transported to Miami’s Wynnwood district. Impressive larger-than-life murals and paintings from local artists cover the walls. Kitsch-cool artifacts like vintage tables, refurbished furniture, and neon rhinos adorn the space. Fresh sea air blows in through the open-garage-door front and small details, like painted spigots repurposed as bookshelf brackets, or a velvet, tufted couch amidst the dining tables add design depth and an element of fun surprise as you take in your surroundings. Completing the atmosphere, well-curated music flows in over the sound system, reinforcing the cool vibes. Every sense is thoughtfully stimulated.
We’re talking of course about Santeria, one of Seaside Heights’ up-and-coming new restaurants, from Head Chef Ricardo “Rico” Gomez (formerly of Chop Shop) and partners Keith Morris (Chop Shop) and Nick Dionisio (Park Seafood). Contrary to popular belief, the name Santeria does not refer to the popular song – though the food is sublime. Rather, Santeria alludes to the unique religion that emerged in the Caribbean as indigenous American and transplanted African religions mixed with Catholicism. It is both a shout-out to Gomez’s own cultural roots – he is a first-generation American, born to a Cuban mother and a Chilean father – and to Gomez’s approach to the menu.
Self-described as a Modern Taqueria, Santeria offers a thoughtful mix of both traditionally inspired tacos – think carne asada, barbacoa, and al pastor – and creations unique to Santeria. For instance, those looking for seafood might try the (delicious) locally inspired and sourced Lobster Tail taco – with coconut breading, mandarin salsa, and cilantro slaw – or the Calamari Tentacles taco, with battered and fried calamari, salsa rosada, home-made pickled jalapeños, and cilantro. Feeling Flexitarian? No problem, try the addictive Leftover taco or the visually striking Jardin taco. Or, for a completely different taste, try the Bahn Mi or Poke Bowl. Thus one can see Gomez’s menu reflects the business’ name – like the religion, Santeria is a mélange of flavors and foods from different cultures, served in the well-loved format of the taco.
An Impressive Array of Tacos
Gomez’s passion is evidenced by his rigorous approach. “We start our days with a trip to the farmer’s market. All our food is prepared fresh,” says Gomez. “Starting at 9:30 am we’ve got Afro-Cuban All Stars salsa music blasting in the kitchen and we’re making everything for the day from scratch. We’re even pickling our own jalapeños, red onions, and making all our own sauces – even our own ketchup. It’s really worth it for the quality.” It is also reflected in his consistent tweaks and experimentation, ever improving his craft. “We are always figuring out how we can elevate the food. We just tweaked our barbacoa formulation by adding orange peel to our rub – I think it added a great nuance to the flavor.”
For the 29-year old Gomez, this passion started as a child. “I grew up in Toms River and was always attracted to the kitchen – at young age I could tell there was always a lot going on there and I saw how food always brought people together, from different ethnicities and walks of life,” said Gomez. “I started working in a restaurant at age 17 as a dishwasher. I worked my way up in various restaurants and even did a stint as a catering manager.” “I started college at NJIT for engineering and liked it, but basically flunked out. But, during that time I discovered an interest in business and transferred to Rutgers’ business program. From there I planned to get a restaurant job on the business side.”
It was around that time that Gomez met restaurateur Keith Morris (Chop Shop), who became one of Gomez’s key mentors. “When I started working at Chop Shop I really enjoyed working with Keith. We worked well together and eventually decided to try a new venture as partners.” After a two-year search, Gomez and Morris partnered with their friend, Nick Dionisio (Park Seafood) who knew of a location on the Boardwalk that was looking for a new tenant. They agreed on a lease and began working on the design and construction.
The resulting venue has become one of the most striking on the NJ shore, and represents a new standard in ambiance. Gomez and Morris – who is a painter himself – built the place themselves, drawing upon years of inspiration from their travels and love of art. “It really grew organically. We had a lot of ideas pent up from visiting a lot of taco shops and other restaurants over the years. We knew overall that we wanted something bright and obnoxious. From there, we altered it as we built, seeing what worked,” said Gomez.
One of the coolest features of the space is that it features impressive large-scale artworks, most made by local artists. “We knew we wanted the walls to be a showcase for the amazing local artists we have here, which a lot of people don’t even realize. For example, we’ve got this big concrete wall in the back – most people would have sheetrocked it, but we thought, ‘this would be perfect for a giant mural.’ We had just been to Miami where we saw a giant silhouette of Easy-E. So we brought in local artist Jimmy Hoba who created a giant mural of Biggie. It was amazing – he put up some tape and with no measurements produced this incredible giant mural. Another local artist Q-Ball came in and did the awesome skull and rose on the other wall.” And the walls are equally matched by the unique furniture. “We incorporated different types of furniture with a variety of textures, colors, and designs – like a velvet couch, antique end tables, etc.”
Gomez’s passion for art and food helped inspire one of his favorite moments last year (and a first for Seaside Heights): an art show hosted at Santeria. “It was the last weekend in September and you would have thought it was mid July – it was packed. We had 7 different sections of art on display and acoustic music from local musicians. It was an amazing way to showcase the amazing talent we have around here. People would tell me – wow I had no idea this artist community was here.” This year, Gomez hopes to expand the show. “We’ve got 15+ artists lined up and have secured the permits to make it a full-fledged block party. I can’t wait.” The event is currently scheduled for Sept 27th – mark your calendars! And follow Santeria on Instagram or Facebook for more info.
All of this hard work has resulted in growing recognition. In July this year, Santeria’s tacos were ranked #2 in restaurant critic Peter Genovese’s list of the top 40 best foods on the Jersey Shore. And Gomez has enjoyed seeing the surprise and delight among customers as they discover Santeria and become loyal patrons. “The best feeling is seeing people come in as a group, eat, and then come back up and order seconds. Then you see them back again the next week and the week after.”
Gomez and Santeria are a great example of the positive transformation underway in Seaside Heights. The past two years have seen a steady flow of promising new businesses opening on or near the Boulevard. Free Range, Genevieve’s, Heavy Reel, and Santeria have made great additions to the strong base of spots like PJ’s, Hemingway’s, and Klee’s. Together, these are helping turn Seaside into a walkable destination with that rare but coveted pairing: good food and drinks with laid-back, beach town vibes.
So take advantage of the next weeks of perfect beach weather in September to come down to Seaside, grab a bite at one of our restaurants (we’re currently loving the “Leftover”, “Carne Asada”, and “Fried Calamari” tacos at Santeria), and stop by One Ocean Blvd for a tour of our last remaining units (call 908-330-1446 to set up a visit). See you at the beach!
Santeria is open all week from 11:30 am – 10 pm during the summer. Check their Instagram and Facebook accounts for more details and hours in the fall
303 Ocean Terrace
Seaside Heights, NJ 08751
One Ocean Blvd is luxury condominium located on the corner of Boulevard and Porter. We have two remaining, beautiful, new two bedroom units. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call James at (908) 330-1446 to arrange a private tour.