Clifton, NJ – At first glance driving by, it would be easy to write-off Bitol as just a run-of-the-mill margarita joint in a strip mall. O.G. people in the area will know the location as “over by where Rowe-Manse Emporium used to be,” at Styertowne in Clifton. Turns out, Bitol is so much more than your neighborhood Mexican cantina.

Yes, of course there are margaritas – both frozen and not. But these are hand-crafted margaritas with off-beat flavors (I’m looking at you Smoky Pineapple). There’s a full and inventive cocktail menu, along with extensive tequila and mezcal selections. One could just sidle up to the bar, order some chips, salsa and guac with a margarita and have a great time. But take a moment to look at the menu, and a delicious food adventure

Let’s start with the guacamole — and you should — made fresh, with extra toppings to add, such as “Al Pastor” with adobo pork & grilled pineapple; “Atun”, with tuna tartare, lime and cucumber mango relish; “Pollo” with adobo chicken cracklings and spicy grilled pineapple; and fan favorite “Sikil-P’ak”, a pumpkin seed and cilantro hummus with pomegranate seeds.

Moving on, there are small bites such as grilled corn with chile powder and queso fresco or corn truffle tortitas, plus ceviches, soups and salads; appetizers such as the cheesy “Queso Flameado” for dipping those chips. Main courses feature seared tuna, roasted chicken, slow-roasted pork, shrimp and steak cooked tableside on a stone. Also enchiladas, tacos and “Tlayudas”, a Mexican-style pizza, a treat that also makes for a killer next-day breakfast. Have you ever tried grilled cactus? You can get that here! It tastes a little like soft green bell pepper, baked under a blanket of toasty cheese. If you have any room left, round out the meal with a bowl of corn/chipotle mac & cheese and some sweet plantains.

Bitol elevates Mexican cuisine from the all too familiar Tex-Mex theme to a fresh new level, served in a lively modern setting.

Bitol Cantina, 1061 Bloomfield Ave, Clifton.

Mary Connolly is also known as “Marie Fromage”. Follow her in Instagram @MarieFromage