Lenora’s Café Offers “American Twist” on Classic Recipes


Lenora’s Cafe Provides a Cozy Atmosphere

Lenora Cortes immigrated from a small coastal town near Mexico City and then realized what she wanted out of life.

“When I came here, I discovered a love of cooking,” says Lenora, a soft-spoken entrepreneur who took time from her Thanksgiving preparations to tell me the café’s story.

After a decade of waitressing and toiling in restaurant kitchens, she and her husband Francisco, who had a son by then, came to a conclusion:

“We should put our ideas on the table,” she said.

The aspiring restaurateurs joined forces with her brother José Jimenez and a neighbor and trusted friend, Lisa Leon, the café’s business manager. They found a location they liked.

Fast forward five years, and you can order “Tinga,” shredded chicken with olives and onions simmered thick and Chipotle sauce, grilled “Steak Veracruz,” or “Pork Pernil Asado,” slow roasted pork with avocado salsa, at Lenora’s Café, a local favorite on Keyport’s lively Front Street.

The eatery is in many ways a community affair, where customers are treated as family and given input into new dishes before they’re added to the menu.

Lenora’s passion for cooking, experience in food service and appreciation for fresh ingredients make it special. She prides herself on offering “little American twists” to Mexican classics such as ranchero eggs, for which “people go crazy,” she says as well as dishes that are more unusual here, such as Tinga.

French Toast - a Lenora's Breakfast Specialty!

French Toast – a Lenora’s Breakfast Specialty!

Unless requested, she offers a “less picante” version of classic dishes—not all of Mexican origin–to her diverse clientele. People come for the all-day breakfast that includes specialties like “Crunchy French Toast,” and eggs and chilaquiles– fried corn tortilla strips, tomatoes, onions and cheese. In the kitchen, I watched Francisco expertly flip French toast and sprinkle fresh bananas and toppings over the steaming bread for the final presentation.

Lenora's Seasonal Desserts Provide a Nice Finish to a Good Meal

Lenora’s Seasonal Desserts Provide a Nice Finish to a Good Meal

A local group of seniors have made a large table near the window a part of their weekday routine and Lenora loves sitting with them when she can take a few minutes from her nonstop day. Other times she can be seen amiably chatting, coffeepot in hand, with the regulars who gather at the counter to trade local news; making apple pies in the kitchen; or meeting with Lisa to discuss new ideas over breakfast.

“My imagination is always working,” she says about her menu, which takes its cues from the seasons. “I like to change spices with the time of year. Summer is for more fresh and crispy foods, winter is good for warm and soft foods that stick to your bones. Comfort foods.”

Keyport has “very friendly people” and has always made them feel at home, she says, gesturing to a wall where the owners hosted a recent exhibit of local paintings.

“I like to learn customers’ names,” Lenora says, “They’re my family.”

She, Francisco and José support town events and local schools and frequently donate gift certificates. Lenora’s is open seven days a week, with dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays, and Lenora rarely takes a full day off, Lisa says, shaking her head fondly.

The owners make sure their well-trained servers try all the dishes too, so they can answer culinary questions. Every spring, Lenora and Lisa adjust the menu, adding and dropping offerings, after hosting a popular “Sampling Night” during which customers get tastes of new dishes, buffet style.

If you want to see what will be served in the next year at Lenora’s Café, come to Sampling Night in May and pay attention to the dishes that go quickly.

Say hi to Lenora while you’re there.


Potter Offers Handmade Creations on Asbury Boardwalk

Asbury Park boardwalk has  weathered many ups and downs

Asbury Park boardwalk has weathered many ups and downs

Will Asbury Park’s long-awaited, oft-failed renaissance finally happen this time?

If it does, Greg LaPlaca, owner of LaPlaca Pottery Works, will be one of the people to thank. He’s been selling pottery and other handmade goods for eight years in Asbury and he is a proud member of  this “little community.”

“We need to keep it local, boutiquey,” says the Belmar-born potter. “That’s what makes it Asbury. I know a lot of my customers.” If chain stores move in to the town, “Why come here over any other beach?”

The entrepreneur, teacher and artist sold his wood-fired and pit-fired creations in Asbury Park and Point Pleasant until Superstorm Sandy rolled through in October 2012.

LaPlaca with one of his unique Face Jugs

LaPlaca with one of his unique Face Jugs

He’d moved his Asbury store from Cookman Avenue to the boardwalk in 2007, then got clobbered by Sandy five years later. After the store flooded, he was forced to rip out the sheetrock and rebuild. Insurance covered nothing because the damage came from the ocean, excluded from his coverage, which he’s since cancelled. No power and a curfew shut down his pottery classes in Point Pleasant. He now uses his Point location as a workshop. Asbury, though, is completely open, and LaPlaca is hoping for a strong summer season to make up for the many lost months of traffic while the boardwalk was closed.

“The worst thing was the town put a fence up and left it, putting me out of business until April,” he said. He had some tables in convention hall, but still lost Christmas business.

LaPlaca’s store was recognized as “best of NJ” for gift shops by New Jersey Monthly magazine in 2011 and 2012 and by the Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice contest for favorite art gallery in 2012. Ninety percent of the store’s offerings he makes himself. His mother produces quilted and crocheted bags that LaPlaca sells along with his seaglass jewelry, (Asbury Park icon) ‘Tillie’ memorabilia and his own photography. Novelty soaps come from visits to a brother living in Hawaii.

LaPlaca keeps his prices as low as he can

LaPlaca keeps his prices as low as he can

One customer favorite has a rich Southern history. “Ugly Jugs” were created in the 19th century with human-looking eyeballs and teeth to scare children away from the moonshine typically stored in them. Pottery with faces dates back to Egyptian times, LaPlaca says.

LaPlaca has tried to create things made to order, but quickly felt constrained by that. “I’m always changing what I do; I get bored,” he says. Besides, creating copies is not the point. “All my stuff is unique.”

“I’m a handmade in America potter. I can’t compete with imports, it cheapens everything else in the store.” He tries to keep his prices affordable. A mug is $20 and a majority of the store’s items cost less than $50, he adds, and many less than $10.

LaPlaca says he’s committed to his beach location, although others questioned his decision to locate in a tourist town even before the storm and the last two months of erratic weather have been rough on his business.

He loves being there anyway.

“We all know each other here, and a few of us who were early got the ball rolling,” he says of his fellow business owners. “We’re working so hard and we took our lumps. It’s a critical summer for us. We have a real community.”

He’s confident that this time, Asbury Park will make it back. “There’s way too much momentum this time.”




Livoti’s Old World Market Serves Up Pasta, Gravy and Great Service To Locals

Livoti's Market - Local Market Serving Up Old-World Charm

Livoti’s Market – Local Market Serves Up Old-World Charm

At Livoti’s Old World Market in Aberdeen, New Jersey, I bought some salted mozzarella for my aunt. She’s a first generation Italian-American, so my aunt has standards.

“We’re famous for our handmade hand-stretched mozzarella,” general manager Michael (aka Big Mike) Ali claims. Mike married the daughter of owner John Livoti.

Livoti’s is celebrating its three year anniversary and although it’s smaller than the two big box groceries that share the same half mile stretch of Route 34 in Aberdeen, it strives to match their prices on packaged items.

Livoti's Famous Mozzarella Station

Livoti’s Famous Mozzarella Station

“We’re a specialty market so not competing with them, but we don’t want people to have to go somewhere else to find affordable paper towels,” says Mike, who walks around bantering amiably  with employees and customers and tweaking shelves that already look quite neat. “We straighten everything every night before we close.”

A woman shopping with her husband tells Mike how much she enjoys the store’s Sunday afternoon Italian music concerts. He smiles and offers her a string bean to sample.

“I might not know everyone by name but I recognize most of their faces. We treat them personally and if there’s a problem we take care of it.” A third of its customers are from Matawan/Aberdeen, he notes, a fourth from Marlboro and Morganville, and the rest from towns such as Freehold and Woodbridge in surrounding areas.

Local Customers Love Livoti's and Big Mike

Local Customers Love Livoti’s and Big Mike

“Most are very local–which is great,” Mike says.

The store features a relentless focus on customer service; an abundance of mouth-watering items made fresh daily (95 percent of its takeout) under head chef Hani Qassis; and a full range of Italian staples and delicacies. You can watch Alphonzo at work in the mozzarella station creating salted, smoked and unsalted versions of the beloved cheese.

Yet Livoti’s reaches beyond traditional Italian cuisine to also offer new (gluten free and organic) and more Americanized fare. Although my grandparents may have viewed the chocolate peanut butter cake in the bakery with suspicion, they’d choose the traditional Italian rum cake and pignoli cookies nearby to serve on Christmas. There’s also a coffee bar, fresh seafood market, deli and enough custom-cut meats, poultry and store-made sausage to please any red-blooded carnivore—with a new organic and grass-fed meats case that Mike proudly points out.

Made Fresh Daily! (We know you want to try it!)

Made Fresh Daily! (We know you want to try it!)

Livoti’s donates generously to local sports teams and “as many causes as we can.” It was the only place open after Hurricane Sandy and sold hot takeout at every meal, prompting visits from as far away as Sayreville, Mike says.

“After Sandy was a very busy week,” he says. “We donated more than 2,000 pounds of cooked pasta and sauce to churches in Union Beach.”

The mayor of Sayreville even asked the owner to open a Livoti’s there. There is a new location coming that Mike will only reveal is in Monmouth County.


Livoti’s Fresh Handmade Mozzarella

What’s my aunt’s verdict on the handmade mozzarella, at $7.99 a pound? “Just a taste, I already ate,” then, a minute later, “I’ll try a little more,” then, “You can tell it’s handmade, it has ‘give.’ It’s not too salty. Light. Very good,” finally, “Like your grandmother’s.”

That says it all.


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