Pennington is home to a new Mexican eatery called La Unica at 20 North Main Street, at the corner near the entrance to the municipal parking lot. The new owners received a warm welcome last week from Mayor Jim Davy, members of the town’s Economic Development Commissionm as well as members of the Pennington Business and Professional Association.
Davy cut the ceremonial red ribbon to open La Unica to the public on Tuesday, May 9.
“I am very happy to see La Unica open in Pennington,” said Davy. “They are a wonderful addition to our business community ‘family.’”
The owners of La Unica, are a husband and wife team-Monica Saldivar and Rafael Ponce de Leon. The couple moved to Pennington from Mexico City 13 years ago with their two children. Chef Rafa has worked in medical devices and pharmaceuticals for thirty years and Monica is a pharmaceutical executive. Their two children have attended local schools including Stony Brook Elementary, Timberlane, and later, The Pennington School.
In 2016, Chef Rafa saw an opportunity to follow his love of cooking and opened a catering business called Las Patatas de Rafa specializing in catering corporate and private events. Rafa trained in Mexico, Madrid, and New York City at the International Culinary Center to support his passion for cooking and expand his skills. Rafa saw huge success in his catering business and was ready to move from catering to the restaurant business, using real Mexican ingredients.
“Once I found the place at 20 North Main Street, I began looking for the real Mexican ingredients like tortillas,” said Chef Rafa. “It sounds simple but they are essential. It is like bread. It is completely different when you have a nice baguette than any other piece of bread.”
“We decided to focus on traditional, emblematic Mexican food,” said Chef Rafa. “It is not the creamy, cheesy, spicy stuff we are using in the United States. In Mexico, we put the salsa in the middle of the table and everybody decides on how much spiciness you want in your dish.”
Jason B. Meyer, Chair of the Pennington Borough Economic Development Commission and Principal Lawyer of Meyer Business Law said that Chef Rafa’s decision to make his home in Pennington is really great news for the town.
“This is just a delicious celebration of entrepreneurship and community,” said Meyer. “Chef Rafa recognized that Pennington is a great, walkable town for families and businesses, and we are thrilled that he has brought La Unica to our Main Street.”
La Unica offers signature dishes including a northern Mexican burrito originating in Chihuahua, a slow-cooked pulled pork served with cured onions, and a street corn dish from Mexico City. The restaurant is currently open daily from 5-8 pm, but Chef Rafa expects to expand to include lunch offerings soon. The restaurant also offers take-out dinners and real Mexican desserts like flan.
“I open the door and I see a lot of well-known faces and everybody has a smile,” said Chef Rafa. “It is either kids from school or the people who live in the neighborhood. Everybody has a smile and everybody has a story they want to share with us. So it has been a very nice experience in our first week.”
Several businesses in recent years have failed at that location, but Meyer said the businesses that did not work out in the location tended not to work out for very individual, idiosyncratic reasons.
“I actually think it is a great location,” said Meyer. “It is ten steps from the municipal parking lot. Parking is not an issue and it is a high visibility location.”
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