MORRIS COUNTY — Looking for a slice of genuine, old time Americana? Look no further than Morris County’s own downtown Boonton. Incorporated in 1867, the Town of Boonton still manages to reflect that rare and wonderful charm of a time passed by. Built on a steep hill, the quaint, narrow, downtown main street is lined with an array of antique shops, boutiques, coffee shops, assorted storefront businesses, and most importantly, at least to me, a wonderful and eclectic selection of small, independently owned, top notch eateries.
There is no doubt that Mexican cuisine is well represented in the general Parsippany area, each offering their own take on the preparation of their dishes. Whether your preference be strictly authentic, fusion, or Tex-Mex, there is a great selection of quality restaurants within a several mile radii to meet your needs.
Chili Willie’s Tex-Mex BBQ Family Restaurant certainly falls into that category of a quality choice when looking for your next great dining experience. I have passed Chili Willie’s a hundred times over the years and for some reason I have not stopped in. That was a big mistake on my part. The exterior façade is hard to miss, with its bright, colorful orange awning boldly displaying the restaurant’s name, whimsical Mexican statuary, potted plants, and a glistening storefront window, all enticing and welcoming you to come inside.
As you walked through the front door you are greeted with a small, ornate, comfortably lighted, and festive looking dining room. The 12 to 14 tables spaced comfortably throughout the room are accented with bright, colorful, glass covered tablecloths with utensils wrapped in white napkins. The color scheme, with bold, bright red and blue walls, adorned with a tasteful display of sombrero’s, antique Mexican photographs, old newspaper articles, plates, assorted ceiling hangings, and Mexican artifacts create a vibrant, fun, and cozy atmosphere. The vibe is exuberant, yet at the same time manages to remain casual, comfortable, and intimate. I thought the thoughtfully laid out interior was the perfect complement, setting the mood for the meal we were about to devour.
Our very friendly server, Marianna, immediately welcomed us, and was very attentive to our needs. Water and menus quickly arrived, followed by Chili Willie’s complimentary very fresh, homemade salsa, along with equally freshly made red, white, and green chips (colors of the Mexican flag). You could easily taste the quality and freshness of the slightly chunky, lightly spiced salsa, and along with the crispiness of the chips, they could have been a meal in themselves. I should note at this point that Chili Willie’s is a BYOB establishment, so feel free to bring along your favorite wine or beer. I brought along a few Modelo Cerveza’s to accompany my Mexican dish
As usual, appetizers were ordered. I asked Marianne’s for her recommendation, and she told me that a lot of customers prefer the Jalapeno Poppers, so who was I to argue with my server. My friend ordered the Chili Relleno for an appetizer while we continued to peruse the menu. Our visit fell somewhere between lunch and dinner time, so we were able to choose from the entire menu. The lunch menu offered a nice selection of choices, and was very reasonably priced, as was everything on the menu, but we opted for the dinner menu on this visit because of the more extensive choices.
The six nicely sized poppers were appropriately crunchy and oozy, a nice pocket of melted cheese and fresh, crisp, snappy Jalapeno’s. They came with a delicious dipping sauce that absolutely enhanced every bite. Always a nice appetizer, very tasty. The Chili Relleno was also very tasty, flavorful, and generously portioned. A great start and now it was time to settle in on our entrees.
It was difficult to pass on the Chef Specialty choices. One dish sounded better than the next, each a personal creation of Chef Jose Martinez, who personally named each dish in honor of either a Mexican State or a significant part of Mexican history. As Chef Jose advised me, “Don’t go to another Mexican restaurant and order any of these dishes by our name. They won’t know what you are talking about.” Specialty dishes include such choices as Pork Chop Durango Style, Steak Mariachi, Steak a la Veracruz, Chicken Breast Tijuana, Quest Flameado con Chorizos; you get the idea. The menu also included the traditional choices of tacos, fajitas, enchilada platters, jumbo burritos, vegetarian dishes, fried seafood, and “Real Pit BBQ” (which sounded good). I settled on the specialty combo Tipico Mexican Platter (Tamale, Enchilada, Burrito) along with a soft-shelled beef taco. A traditional Tex-Mex dish that appropriately came with rice, beans & Pico de Gallo salad.
I was surprised at the beautifully plated, generously sized portions of my entree as it arrived. It was “muy grande!” Clearly enough for two or more people, but I was committed to finishing it. My friend had the Chili Willie platter, which was a similar combo. You have a choice of filling, beef, chicken, or mix and match. One may believe that if an entrée is generous in size, that it may sacrifice some taste. Not in this case, the dish offered a tantalizing depth of flavors; a savory, filling, and satisfying meal. The fresh herbs and spices were evident, and perfectly complemented the dish. There was nothing bland or boring about this dish. And yes, this gavone did finish, and enjoy every bite.
Jose and Jackie Martinez both stopped by my table for a chat as we were finishing our meal. Neither Jose or Jackie could be more cordial, hospitable, or genuinely friendly. It was a pleasure talking to them both about their personal stories, the history of the restaurant, and, of course, their food. We were also treated to some freshly made Mexican Flan as we sat and talked. The caramel flavored, milky, sweet, and slightly eggy dessert was a perfect ending to a great meal. I must admit, I have tried Flan from many different restaurants, and this was as good as, if not better, than any Flan I have ever had. When asked, Jose shared that this was also one of his grandmother’s special dessert recipes.
Chili Willie’s is another example of those proud, unbeatable, independent, family owned and run establishments, that not only overcame the pandemic hardships, but continues to thrive despite them. Opened in 1988 (34 YEARS) by Jackie, and shortly thereafter joined by Jose, Chili Willie’s has been a mainstay in downtown Boonton, and Boonton is lucky to have them.
Jose, who hails from Guadalajara, Mexico, told me that in 1988 he and Jackie decided to veer away from a more traditional menu and opted instead for a more American Tex-Mex approach to meet the public’s taste at that time. Today the restaurant serves authentic Mexican, Tex-Mex, and many of the Chef’s creative specialty dishes that are based on cherished recipes handed down from Jose’ grandmother, who fueled his interest in cooking, while as a young boy he attentively watched and learned as his Abuelita prepared the family meals. As Jose notes on their business page, “The secret to maintaining the flavor of grandma’s authentic native Mexican, “criolla,” recipes at Chili Willie’s are in the preparation of our dishes using only the freshest ingredients (no cans).”
“My wife and I try to make people happy. We want people to taste Mexico in every dish,” stated Jose.
Following my visit to Chili Willie’s I can attest to Jose and Jackie’s commitment to their customers. We did walk into the restaurant as strangers, and left feeling like old friends, ready for another visit in the near future in order to try one of Jose’ specialty dishes. It was evident why Chili Willie’s has been such a long time Morris County favorite. Do yourself a favor and the next time you up for some delicious Mexican cuisine give Chili Willie’s Mexican Restaurant a try.
Chili Willie’s Mexican Restaurant, (Tex-Mex BBQ Family Restaurant), 702 Main Street Boonton, NJ 07005. (973) 299-8775. www.chiliwilliesrestaurant.com
Dine In – Take Out – Curbside Pickup – No Delivery – BYOB – Catering Menu – Online Ordering – Vegetarian Options – Gluten Free Options – Street Parking.