A new Mexican restaurant is set to open in Camden County this spring, and it will be anything but run of the mill.
Axo Tacos is poised to bring a menu of birria tacos and egg rolls, potstickers and fried rice bowls to Lindenwold, a small South Jersey borough little more than 10 miles from the banks of the Delaware River.
Owner and founder Jose Lorenzo announced Tuesday that he signed the lease to buy Little Tuna, a shuttered seafood diner at 4 North White Horse Pike. He received his zoning permits and business license from Lindenwold city officials Thursday.
The new restaurant could open as soon as March, Lorenzo told What Now Philadelphia.
“What I’m trying to serve is things that I love, not what I’m trying to get money from,” he said during an interview. “If I like it, I’ll serve it to you.”
The property deal was symbolic of the diverging fortunes for restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Little Tuna was a mainstay on the South Jersey food scene for 20 years before it shut down last year, a casualty of the slowed market. Meanwhile, Lorenzo managed to build his business from the ground up during the pandemic. As word of mouth spread from Axo Tacos’ appearances at local events and festivals, he watched his clientele sprout from a handful of customers.
Now he is gearing up to open his first brick-and-mortar location.
Lorenzo, a Mexican immigrant, moved to the United States with his mother when he was 5. She became his muse. He grew up watching her tinker with variations on traditional Mexican recipes and incorporated her free-wheeling approach into his cooking style.
Lorenzo found ways to combine his love of Asian recipes with old-fashioned Mexican food. Axo Tacos’ birria is a braised beef slowly cooked with 50 different spices over the course of eight to 12 hours. The staples include birria ramen, beef birria made with shrimp marinated in chili oil and seafood tacos featuring salmon, crab and shrimp and a lobster dipping bisque on the side.
In the spring and summer months, Lorenzo uses sauces made from jalapenos, radishes, tomatoes, and other fresh crops his parents harvest in his home garden
Axo Tacos was a journey born out of necessity. Lorenzo bought a house in Lindenwold four months before the global pandemic hit the U.S. A manager and sous chef at Lamberti’s, an Italian pizzeria and market in Philadelphia, Lorenzo’s worried about how he would pay his mortgage after his hours were cut. He decided to start a pop-up shop in his garage to make ends meet.
Customers quickly fell in love with his delectable creations and Axo Tacos was invited to several neighborhood festivals. As business picked up, Lorenzo had to stop cooking out of his garage. He moved his operation to a kitchen at Pudding Palace in Oaklyn, and still uses the shared cooking space four times a week.
In May, Clementon Park and Splash World partnered with Lorenzo and his team, giving them space for a pop-up shop. It was a fast-paced experience cooking inside an amusement park that often drew daily crowds of 40,000 people.
Lorenzo had to hustle to meet the demand. Many days, he spent several hours behind the stove in 100-degree heat without so much as a water break because the line of customers never slowed.
“It’s a different ball game. Clementon Park is not for the weak,” he said.
Lorenzo’s work ethic paid off. Axo Tacos will have two additional vending spots in the theme park when it re-opens later this year.
The restaurant should also be open by that time.
“At the end of the day, anybody can cook, but skills take time,” Lorenzo said. “To be able to really cook something, you have to put love and passion into it, because if you don’t, it’s just a simple meal.”