Believe it or not, back in the 1980s, the Marlton-Cherry Hill (New Jersey) area consisted of so many farms that you might have stumbled upon a “Field of Dreams” if you wandered too far into the acres of gigantic corn stalks. If you ventured down Route 70, just west of the former Marlton Circle, you might think you had stumbled upon an oasis: an authentic Mexican restaurant in the middle of an area known more for its synagogues and fancy shopping malls than Mexican cuisine. Meet Taylor Sodaski, the general manager of The Mexican Food Factory. Taylor and his family — his parents opened up the restaurant in 1979 — were passionate about Mexican food well before Paul Newman’s face was on the side of salsa jars in your local supermarket. Now, you can enjoy quality food and amazing beers from across the globe at MFF, which has never relied upon the techno world that has dominated the food industry of late. Heck, The Mexican Food Factory still doesn’t even advertise in newspapers. All they do is produce amazing, homemade, authentic and innovative Mexican grub, and the locals literally line up waiting for a table or bar stool to enjoy it all. We recently caught up with Taylor at The Mexican Food Factory. We sipped some various suds (a hoppy IPA from California and a wild brew from Maine), munched on some homemade tortilla chips and fresh homemade salsa and shared some (Mexican) Chocolate Covered Memories …
Where does your love for food stem from?
We always were a food family. We opened this restaurant when I was 7 years old in 1979. My mom was one of those people who lived all over the world. So she was always introducing weird foods to us. My dad was the opposite. My dad was from a Ukrainian family and grew up in Phoenixville [Pennsylvania]. In his world, every Friday was fried chicken day, Shake N’ Bake style. It wasn’t even real fried chicken. Every Tuesday was stuffed cabbage.
What foods remind you of childhood?
My mom grew up in the Sacramento-San Francisco area of California, where they always made Mexican food. She even lived in Mexico for a time as a child. One of her biggest food memories was eating tamales. And she passed that on to me and my brother. We always used to eat tamales at home, even as kids. Sunday brunch would be tamales. If we weren’t eating tamales at home, we’d go to Chinatown [Philadelphia] and walk around and eat all sorts of different stuff.
When we first started the restaurant, we didn’t have a ton of money. So we stretched a lot. My parents worked a lot and didn’t have a ton of time to go to the supermarket. You’d think being in the restaurant business, you’d always bring stuff home. But it doesn’t always work out like that. Believe it or not, my mom used to make cinnamon toast. It was simple: toast with butter, sugar and cinnamon. She’d bake it. It was crispy on the bottom and soggy on the top. It was one of those things that, to this day, I can’t repeat it, but it was so good.
And fried bananas. She made fried bananas with sugar and butter in a pan. It’s so soft. We’d put them between the cinnamon toast sometimes. It was for dessert. In the restaurant business, you don’t have time to bake at home. Not even cookies. But, in ten minutes, if she wanted to do something special for us kids, my mom could make us cinnamon toast and fried bananas.
What about junk food growing up?
I was a “candyholic” as a kid. I’d get my allowance, get on my bike, drive three miles to the candy story and spend every single dime on candy. My parents were never happy about that, but what were they going to do? We didn’t have a lot of junk food at home though.
Mexican is my comfort food. Beans and rice is my staple. I probably eat that every single day. Beans, avocados, tortillas. I don’t have bread at home, but I have tortillas. I think that’s from being here. Mexican food doesn’t shock me. That’s my home cuisine.
Did your mom pass on that cooking trait to you?
If we had something, my mom would figure out a way to cook it. That’s how I learned to cook, that’s how my brother cooks. We don’t really follow recipes. Recipes are an idea. When you start cooking, it’s more art. You start doing your thing, because things change from season to season. No one in my family can bake, because baking is perfection. We’re cooks, not bakers. Then again, my mom makes her own gourmet dog food for her pooch. So … <laughter>
I cook a lot at the restaurant. If I have a stressful night, cooking at home is a big stress reliever. I head home, buy something interesting on the way, open up some red wine and cook for a couple hours. It’s not stressful, it’s relaxing, and it makes me feel good. I’ll taste it the whole time, along the way, as I cook, and I’ll eat whatever I make for the rest of the week.
Were you a picky eater growing up?
I wasn’t just encouraged to eat different foods growing up, I was forced to. There were times that I didn’t want to try things. For example, I didn’t eat things that were green when I was younger. Now, that’s all I eat. If you told me I had to eat broccoli, I’d probably cry when I was 7 years old.
When we went out to eat, we weren’t the family where the kids would order hot dogs at the restaurant. We ordered the restaurant’s cuisine. If we went out for Vietnamese food, we ate that food. We didn’t insult that restaurant by ordering something like grilled cheese. We’d get curry. I’m so happy we did that, because I love food. Everything my family does centers around food.
Any family food traditions?
Even though my father’s side of the family wasn’t gourmet, per se, I learned a lot about food from them, too. My grandmom cooked all her native Ukrainian foods. So, when we visited my grandmom’s in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, we’d have stuffed cabbage. Their local church would make stuffed cabbage and perogies. We’d get our blessed eggs, which were basically deviled eggs, soaked in beet juice.
My father’s side of the family wasn’t gourmet, but my grandfather always had a garden. You might think of it as simple food, but my grandmother made all sorts of pickles. She made everything from scratch. She made these bread and butter pickles. To this day, I wish I knew how to make them like that. They were sweet. She’d make pickled peppers, beets and all sorts of jarred vegetables, because my grandfather had his garden. His vegetables tasted so good. His tomatoes were amazing. Not like tomatoes today, which are a little less flavorful. Stuff grown in real soil is pretty awesome.
How has the industry and your restaurant changed over the years, from when you were a kid?
My folks opened up a Mexican restaurant in South Jersey when there wasn’t a lot of Mexican food at the time. There was just one restaurant down the street and then nothing for a long distance. A lot of people have opened Mexican restaurants over the years around here, and they’ve all failed. We’re still here.
My mom has always been a great, innovative chef. Back in the day, my dad would find a cool ingredient and buy it. Then, my mom would have to “magically” come up with a recipe. Or, vice versa, my mom would figure out a recipe and then send my dad out to find random ingredients. It wasn’t easy back then. You couldn’t find stuff like you can now. You couldn’t find fresh cilantro then like you can now. You couldn’t always get fresh jalapenos then. Avocados were really difficult. In some seasons, we’d have to get the most un-ripe avocados you could find, so they would last a week or more. We’d scrounge around the city trying to find ingredients. We’d have to go to Chinatown to get cilantro, and it would be Chinese parsley. You just couldn’t get it then.
Years ago, the first time my dad saw cactus for sale, he knew he had to get it. Then my mom was researching cactus in Mexico and trying to figure out how to serve it. One week, it’s a cactus salad. The next week, it’s cactus patties. That’s how it works. If she’s on a kick on a certain ingredient, she figured out how to get it into the restaurant.
Some fifteen years ago, my mom came up with a dish: shrimp and arugula quesadilla with toasted almonds and a chipotle sauce. That dish is timeless. Fifteen years later, and you see people making stuff like that. There were a lot of dishes that she made that were ahead of their time in a lot of ways. We used to get rewarded for that.
It’s so different now. Mexican food has changed. All last week, we were experimenting with goat. Slow cooking it. Goat torta. Pulled roasted goat on a platter.
What do you think of Taco Bell, Chi Chi’s and other Mexican chains?
They all have their place. They are entry-level restaurants. I don’t particularly eat at chains. In some ways, I think they “dumb down” food. There’s a lot of chemicals, and it’s the lowest common denominator of food. They’re trying to please everybody. Our philosophy is to make things the way we think they should be made, and we hope people like it. And, obviously, they have. Nobody loves the food at these chains, but the general public doesn’t hate it either.
With licensing issues these days, it’s almost impossible to have a mom and pop restaurant with liquor in New Jersey. It’s a more difficult business if you’re not selling alcohol. So now you have these neighborhoods that are all chains, and they are kind of homogenized. All these people love the green movement and sustainable foods. Not everyone is going to get it all right, but the more ways you can help, the better. You want to stay local. Keep money in the local economy. These chains are based all over, from Oklahoma to Florida and beyond. When the profit leaves this local area, it hurts the small places. We buy everything local that we can, from meats to produce. All our distributors are local.
What do you think of modern, Americanized nachos?
I think Taco Bell does what it does. Fast food nachos are relatively healthy compared to other options, like Big Macs from McDonald’s. And I think there is a place for it. It’s not my favorite, but I’ve eaten it before. At 3 o’clock in the morning, there’s not a lot of choices. There are diners and Taco Bell. I like whiz on a cheesesteak. I would eat the nasty nachos at a ballpark but not at a restaurant. I’m a food geek but not a food snob. I think foods have their places. I would rather eat mediocre food with a lot of great friends, like at a ballgame, than eat great food by myself. You make compromises like that in life.
From my understanding, nachos were made when service women were in Mexico. Their husbands were in a meeting. They were probably a little snooty. They asked for some toast points or tea sandwiches. The restaurant didn’t have bread. They had tortillas in their kitchen. So they cut the tortillas into small, bite-size portions, baked them or fried them up and put some stuff on top of them like hors d’oeuvres. And now, for the general public, that dish has been turned into the disgusting yellow cheese that America loves.
What recipes do you want to share with us?
Growing up, we always had this gigantic wooden salad bowl. I used to always think it was awesome. Caesar salad, made from scratch, was one of the things my dad made. He always made the Caesar dressing with tons of anchovies and fresh garlic, crushed or shaved, good Locatelli cheese and tons of olive oil. I’d even eat the leftover salad the next day. We’d call it “Italian Kim Chi.” Enjoy my dad’s Classic Caesar Salad.
Taylor Sodaski is the general manager of The Mexican Food Factory (Marlton, New Jersey). The Sodaski family opened up The Mexican Food Factory in 1979, and it has thrived ever since. Taylor, in addition to being a food fanatic, cheers on Philadelphia sports, often while enjoying local craft beers.