Victor Cupido knows he has competition in the Belleville area, so he is trying to set Baja Cali apart from other Mexican restaurants.
The menu includes standard fare such as burritos, quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas, chimichangas and fajitas, but also a large number of seafood dishes.
"Our fish tacos are really good," Victor said. "We also have shrimp, scallops, tilapia and real crab meat."
Baja Cali is short for Baja California, a coastal Mexican state where fresh seafood is plentiful.
"We've got several different kinds of shrimp," Victor said. "The diabla is spicy, and the ajo is (marinated in) garlic butter. Then we have the ranchero that is mixed with tomatoes and onions, and the chipotle has the chipotle sauce on it."
You'll only find ground beef in one dip.
"We use shredded beef for everything else," Victor said. "It's better quality."
Victor and his friend, Nicanor Pliego, of St. Louis, opened Baja Cali on Sept. 6 in downtown Belleville. The High Street location formerly housed The Jug for decades and briefly another Mexican restaurant.
Customer Mike Henry gave Baja Cali a try for lunch recently. He enjoys authentic Mexican food and often drives to Fairmont City to get it.
Mike, 49, of Belleville, ordered Huevos con Chorizo, which is Mexican sausage with scrambled eggs.
"I was amazed that they even had it on the menu," he said. "It's a traditional Mexican breakfast, and it was wonderful. I would go back for that alone, and it was a good-size portion."
Mike sees himself stopping in Baja Cali when he's hungry for Mexican food but his schedule requires him to stay close to home.
"(The staff was) very pleasant," he said. "And the salsa had a good flavor."
Jack Weck and his wife, Sandy, were regulars at The Jug on Sundays after church. They're thrilled to see a new restaurant in its vacant spot.
The atmosphere is different. Baja Cali has bright yellow, orange and green walls, tabletops and murals with Mexican scenes and clay roof tiles on overhangs.
"They've done a super job of redoing the place," said Jack, 70, of Belleville. "It's clean, and it gives you that 'baja' feeling."
Victor, 47, of Belleville, grew up in the restaurant business in Mexico and stuck with it after immigrating to the United States in 1988.
First, he lived in California for three months.
"It was nice, but there weren't many good jobs," he said. "And I don't really like big cities, so I came here, and I liked it."
Victor's first metro-east job was at Ramon's in Collinsville, which is owned by his relatives.
He later worked at Mariachi's, Chevys Fresh Mex, Casa Gallardo, Chile's and the Elephant Bar and briefly was a partner at Lucinda's in Belleville.
"It really wasn't big enough for two partners," he said.
Baja Cali is much larger, seating about 90 people, in addition to a party room for 30.
The restaurant serves beer, wine and cocktails. Margaritas are on special for $1.99 Mondays through Thursdays.
At a glance
What: Baja Cali Mexican Restaurant
Where: 100 N. High St. in Belleville
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Seating: About 90 people
Party room: Accommodates 30
Information: Call 618-416-7771
On the menu
Seafood Fajitas -- Fajitas with grilled shrimp, scallops, crab meat and tilapia, $13.99
Pollo California -- Grilled chicken hot on a skillet with cheese dip and choice of sauce, plus rice, beans, lettuce, pico de gallo and sour cream, $9.49
Enchilada Supremas -- Four stuffed corn tortillas (chicken, beef, cheese and bean), topped with cheese dip, lettuce, shredded cheese, tomatoes and sour cream, $8.99
Tostadas Del Mar -- Three tostadas topped with shrimp, crab meat and special mix, $10.99
Burrito Gordo -- Large flour tortilla stuffed with pork chile verde, beans, rice and shredded cheese, topped with cheese dip and more pork, $9.99
Fajita Nachos -- Chicken or steak fajita grill with tomatoes, onions and bell peppers, topped with cheese dip, served over tortilla chips, $8.99