Javier Acuna took a risk in 2016 when he opened Del Pez Mexican Gastropub on the Wilmington Riverfront.
At the time, customers seeking Latin flavors wanted straightforward tacos, enchiladas and fajitas—the cuisine they ordered at Acuna’s Santa Fe Mexican Grill in Newark and Wilmington.
But Del Pez is about creative flavors, artful plating and the interplay of ingredients, an approach widely accepted on American, Asian and even Italian menus.
“We went through a lot of growth and change until we found a place where the market demand is where we need it to be,” said Acuna, founder of Hakuna Hospitality Group, which also includes La Taqueria Tacos & Burritos, Savanna Salad Bowls & Sandwiches, both in the Riverfront Market, and Mi Ranchito Mexican Market in Newark.
Judging by the crowd at the new Del Pez location in Glen Mills, the market is at a sweet spot.
The restaurant is in a former Bertucci’s in Concordville Town Centre, which has an established Target, Home Depot and Staples and is near Maris Grove, the expansive retirement community, and newly built apartments.
So far, the restaurant has been well received, Acuna says.
“In a way, the opening process reminds me a lot of the city of Newark when I opened my first location [Santa Fe Mexican Grill] over 20 years ago,” Acuna said. “Everybody knows each other, and they really work together and want the best for the well-being of the town.”
Del Pez’s beginning
More than 20 years ago, Acuna arrived in the United States from Colombia to study industrial engineering.
While taking classes at Delaware Technical Community College and Wesley College, he worked in the hospitality industry, steadily progressing through the ranks.
In 2003, the young entrepreneur opened Santa Fe Mexican Grill on Newark’s Main Street and later expanded. The Wilmington site debuted in 2010.
Even before 2020, Acuna quickly learned to pivot.
The Wilmington Santa Fe, for instance, closed in 2017 when the Pennsylvania Avenue building came down and returned in 2023 when 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. opened.
Meanwhile, the riverfront Del Pez is not Acuna’s first.
In 2014, he and his partners opened the 76-seat Del Pez Sea Mex at 76 E. Main St., the small storefront that now houses Peach Blossom Eatery.
In the years leading to 2020, gastropubs were putting innovative twists on familiar dishes. Why not do the same with Latin flavors. Acuna turned Del Pez into a Mexican gastropub that fit nicely on the riverfront’s culinary scene.
Hotel guests with sophisticated palates didn’t raise an eyebrow when they saw Brussels sprouts with applewood-smoked bacon or a Mexican Coca-Cola-raisin reduction on a Mexican menu.
With the success in Wilmington, the Main Street Del Pez closed.
More than Mexican
That’s not to say Acuna is done with Newark. In spring, he will open a Del Pez at The Grove at Newark, a new live-work-play development.
All the locations will have the same menu. The exception is the Detroit-style pizza section at Glen Mills, which leverages Bertucci’s old pizza oven.
Motor City’s claim to fame was originally baked in a steel automotive drip pan with high sides to create a rectangular Sicilian pizza with thick focaccia-like dough.
By placing cheese between the pan and crust, chefs create a signature crunch, and the substantial foundation is a stable platform for Del Pez’s toppings, which would slide off a New York-style crust, Acuna explained.
Selections include the Frida Lee-Jon, a fun and addictive take on shrimp Lejon with bacon, shrimp, mozzarella and Chihuahua cheese and chipotle-horseradish sauce ($19.)
The Kennett Garcia pizza ($17) sports Kennett Square mushrooms—and street corn—with a basil-arbol marinara sauce.
Presentation is a Del Pez trademark, and it was evident during the soft opening. For instance, the shrimp and spinach enchilada came with attractive squiggles of beer cheese sauce and green tomatillo sauce.
There are four flavors of guacamole—including one with Spanish octopus—and, interestingly, you can order a sushi roll. Surprised? Don’t be. Think of all the rolls made with avocado and jalapeno in Japanese restaurants.
Signature tacos also buck the norm. Octopus, Texas BBQ and prime rib are a few of the available proteins.
The next step
The original Newark Del Pez was small. The new location is 6,500 square feet with seating inside and out, a well-appointed tequila room for private parties and two dining rooms.
Acuna worked with a local designer to fuse Latin-American style with the Pennsylvania landscape, and she sourced much of the décor from area antiques shops.
Acuna is exploring other options for Del Pez and Santa Fe.
RELATED STORY: Need warming up? Dive into one of these soup flights
“Our brand is being recognized beyond Delaware,” he said. “We’ve received phone calls from other [Pennsylvania] townships representatives offering potential locations.”
He’s flirted with the idea of an incubator space where chefs and investors can connect and owners—such as food truck operators—can have brick-and-mortar locations. Picture a plaza-like setup and live music.
No doubt the talented up-and-comers will benefit from the experienced restaurant owner’s words of wisdom.
Share this Post