Lately, when driving around the Caldwells, this writer has thought his imagination was playing tricks on him: Was that a giant sombrero on top of a circa 1980s love-me lime Plymouth Reliant K? And then there was the possibility that members of TV and film's The A-Team were shopping downtown, as their official 1984 GMC van was often parked in a municipal lot in Caldwell.
It turns out the offbeat vehicles are appearing courtesy of one business establishment—, where owner Mike Dattolo is not only on a gastronomic mission of providing satisfying Mexican/American tastes to his customers, but a memorable delivery experience as well.
The Plymouth and the van are actually the latest in a long line of eye-catching cars used by the restaurant to transport meals. If things go right, Mike might just be at the midpoint in a fleet of Detroit-meets-Mexico (by way of Hollywood) street machines.
Vroom, Vroom! Arriba, Arriba!
It's another afternoon at Mexican Mike’s; customers are stopping in, picking up orders and deliveries are going out. When things calm down, Mike starts to talk auto shop.
"I just loved cars as a kid," Mike begins. Combining his pop culture affections with his business sense that tells him that exposure is key, he started getting unusual delivery cars with his first food place, Otto's. For that venture, he had "a bright orange Plymouth PT Cruiser.” Next he went way off the beaten path and picked up a 1991 Cadillac hearse, which he also had painted “Otto’s orange.” The color wasn't permanent—"I actually went two-tone with that after a while," he remembers.
The list of "jalopies" which made Otto’s deliveries, Mike recalls, also includes a 1975 AMC mail jeep. “With right-hand driving!" The inspiration? The 1989 film Loverboy. Around the same time, there was a less-glamorous, but yes, bright-orange, van.
Pimp My Ride, With Tacos
That takes us to present day, where Mike talks about his main delivery maker, a 1988 Plymouth Reliant K car. Getting it was "one of those little old lady” things. It had only 52,000 original miles on it, and I got it for $800." He calls it the "sombrero car."
Though it's painted a bright green ("I figured Otto's was orange, this restaurant is green."), the real attention-getting aspect of this one is the giant hat attached to the roof. "It does get a lot of attention," the local king of the oddball auto states, adding that "Montclair police pulled it over once just to get a look at it!"
The hat was originally supposed to stick out in another manner. "I was going to put it on the roof of the restaurant." That reminds this writer of the faux cacti which could be seen atop the one-story Bloomfield Avenue eatery. Mike reveals that they are gone because "someone complained."
"I was told they didn't fit in with the sign ordinance in Caldwell," he says with a sigh of disappointment. "I'm only trying to promote the business. We have so many cars and people going through here, but it's hard to catch their attention." The roof's loss was the Plymouth's gain—and strain.
I Pity the Fool Who Doesn't Think This Van is Cool
The latest—and greatest, judging by Mike's enthusiasm—is his A-Team van. Acquiring one—a 1984 GMC—and the exact right one wasn't without its challenges. His already high energy level goes up a couple of notches as he relates his tale.
"It wasn't easy to find," he intones (you almost hear the military drum intro of the '80s action show playing in the background). "I mean, it's an early-'80s van. First, you need to find a sliding side door with no window—most have windows. The idea was to find that, but also one with doors in the back with windows. I needed that exact combo. It took six months."
He finally found one online, grabbed it, and took it to his friend at for an inspection. "After Tony said it was okay, I started looking for parts."
Mike ended up buying another van from the same era, taking what he needed, and selling the rest of it to Clunker Junkers. The biggest surprise in the project may have been finding actual show items for the car. "I found a club online that sells them!"
Mexican Meets American Pop Culture
The A-Team van represents a turning point and inspiration of sorts. Mike says going forward, he's endeavoring to find cars from his two other favorite shows: K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider and a car from The Dukes of Hazzard.
That would be quite the sight—the Knight Industries 2000 secret pet project and/or the General Lee cuttin' through the Caldwells, filled with burritos, with no David Hasselhoff, nor Boss Hogg.
He's on a roll now, and says that if he had big money, he'd like to have the Ferrari seen in Magnum P.I. or the DeLorean from Back to the Future. That indeed would take a lot of pesos.
Out back, we shoot pictures of the two current vehicles. Mike is all smiles around his A-Team van, proudly popping open the back doors—it was half-expected that "Faceman" or "Murdock" would jump out, but only a vast space for a lot of tacos was revealed.
Earlier, he explained that besides the fun and promotional factors, and beyond regular deliveries, the van has a clear, real and sensible purpose of being used for catering gigs and carrying restaurant supplies. Hmm … along with the driver pretending he's "Hannibal"?
Shaking his head and in a moment of candor, Mike exclaims, "I'm so happy to drive a piece of junk van—it's the little things in life!"
Have you had your Mexican food delivered in a Plymouth or A-Team van lately?