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New Wood-Ridge Eatery Featuring Puerto Rican Food Evolves As Family Affair

Jackie Mendez, left, and her daughter Darlene in the family's restaurant.
Jackie Mendez, left, and her daughter Darlene in the family's restaurant. Photo Credit: Faith Ballantine-Armonaitis
Jackie Mendez greets customers in Latin Heat's dining room.
Jackie Mendez greets customers in Latin Heat's dining room. Photo Credit: Faith Ballantine-Armonaitis
Wood beams, tin roof and strings of lights provide ambiance for diners.
Wood beams, tin roof and strings of lights provide ambiance for diners. Photo Credit: Latin Heat
Traditional artwork decorates a back hallway.
Traditional artwork decorates a back hallway. Photo Credit: Faith Ballantine-Armonaitis

WOOD-RIDGE, N.J. -- Walk into Latin Heat and you are transported away to an island. Rhythmic Latin music plays. Wooden beams are topped by a tin roof, and strings of delicate white lights are draped along the wall.

Wood-Ridge’s newest restaurant is truly a family affair one year in the making. At its heart are Jackie and Gabe Mendez. It is their first restaurant, and it features traditional Puerto Rican fare.

Married 31 years, Jackie always cooked for her children and for the entire family during the holidays, hosting between 50 and 70 people. But the tinge of empty nest syndrome led Jackie to want to start her own restaurant and feed others. After family discussions, it was agreed that if anyone could do it, Jackie could.

The buildout of the restaurant was a family effort. Jackie’s children, Darlene, Gabriella and Guy, would help after work or after school. Her husband shut down his own stair-building business for three months. Even Jackie’s 85-year-old father, Vidal Estrella, helped out.

Jackie wants people to feel like “they are home … to be comfortable like you’re part of the family.” She comes out from the kitchen and greets each customer.

What’s popular on the menu?

Mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish with fried plantains, served with beef, pork or chicken. Also available is pork pernil and rice and beans. There are daily specials, and, yes, there’s even Taco Tuesday.

The restaurant opened on Sept. 11, a date that has significance to the family. Jackie and Gabe’s son was at high school in lower Manhattan on 9/11 when the planes hit. He barely caught one of the last ferries from Battery Park. When he arrived on the other side, he was met on the dock by a priest.

“That was God,” said Jackie. “That’s the only explanation for it.”

But because the phone and communications lines were down, the couple didn’t hear from their son for two long days. She finally got the call from local police, and the family was reunited several days later, which continued to strengthen the Mendezes sense of family.

Latin Heat is at 259 Valley Blvd., Wood-Ridge.

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