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This feature by Rich Pawlak was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 21, 1998. All rights reserved.

Eating Out: Chevy's

If you haven't already noticed, national chain restaurants are descending on the Princeton area like locusts, quickly filling the Route 1 corridor and beyond, offering over-hyped, and ultimately, mediocre food. So it was with a great deal of surprise that our visit to the new Chevy's at the Mercer Mall yielded such a satisfying dining experience.

This San Francisco-based chain of Mexican-themed restaurants has planted its first East Coast flag in our very own backyard -- a colorful homage to the usefulness of corrugated and pressed tin, with faux awnings inside and out and bejeweled lamps over tables and booths. The color scheme of yellows, oranges and greens is oddly inviting, and the bar area and dining rooms glow with energy.

And speaking of energy, this is a kid-friendly restaurant, with displays of desserts-to-come at the entrance, a display of prickly cacti, which may provide a painful lesson for some curious tykes, and a centerpiece tortilla-making machine that is quite entertaining, and a nice symbol for the kind of food served here. The children's menu features items under $5, including burgers, and simpler, milder dishes, and even a simple Spanish-English glossary section, a thoughtful touch.

We started dinner with a warm basket of complimentary tortilla chips, served with a roasted tomato salsa, a more finely chopped version of what passes for salsa these days. This salsa had soul, with a mellow burn that kept us asking for refills. We ordered a Fresh Mex Sampler ($9.99), comprised of fiery, gooey chicken wings; airy chicken quesadillas; sensational hand-rolled tamales, one with chicken, in a tomatillo sauce, another with pork in a searingly hot chile meat sauce; a generous mound of chicken fajita nachos with beans; and chunky pico de gallo, with the requisite guacamole and sour cream; a terrific platter of sharable food, more than enough for four.

We ordered several different versions of fajitas for our entrees. These fajitas were as good as I've ever found anywhere, with the good smoky flavors of mesquite grilling (a specialty of Chevy's), ample portions, and plenty of those freshly made tortillas for wrapping one's chosen combinations. My selection ($10.99) was a mix of grilled Tropical Chicken, served with pineapple and other fruits, and Grilled Pork Loin, marinated in pineapple, but served with caramelized apples, bacon, onions and jalapeno jelly. This was a mouth dazzler and an impressive value. Mesquite Chicken and Grilled Steak fajitas (both $10.99) were surprisingly moist, and not overpowered by mesquite smoke.

The real treats were the fresh tortillas, warm, almost buttery-nutty, and addictive, having been made minutes before on the machine stationed in the middle of the main dining room. One of our party ordered an ordinary-sounding combination platter (only $7.99!) of a chicken taco, wonderfully light, and plump with smoky chicken; a beef and pepper chimichanga, lightly fried and greaseless, and wonderfully huge; and a beef burrito, rich with good corn flavor and piquant sauce; not so ordinary at all at this surprisingly good new restaurant.

-- Rich Pawlak

Chevy's Fresh Mex, Mercer Mall, Route 1. 609-452-7070.

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