Growing up in a small town, we had a pretty limited idea of ethnic fare -- mostly pizza and chop suey, scored on the cheap from any of the handful of small Italian or Chinese eateries that dotted the landscape. Sure, our "downtown" had only one drugstore, one bank, and a laundromat; but there were at least five pizza parlors and three or four Chinese joints within a three-mile radius. Too bad for us that -- catering, as they understandably did, to the cornfed midwestern palate -- hardly any of them served good stuff.
Modern connoisseurs are a lot more sophisticated than that today, of course. To them, Italian food is more likely to mean prosciutto and Provimi veal than spaghetti and meatballs, and Chinese probably triggers images of dim sum and chow mai fun, rather than chop suey and fortune cookies.
Unfortunately, now it seems to be Mexican restaurants' turn to fill the niche carved out by the Italian and Chinese restaurants of yore: They're cheap, there's one around nearly every corner, and most of them simply aren't that great.
Which has made it that much more of a treat to discover Jalapeño Loco, the spacious, friendly Mentor restaurant that opened in March. No, this isn't the place to chow down on pozole, menudo, or ceviche. Chicken with mole poblano is MIA; and to drink, rather than horchata and agua frescas, there's Coke and Mr. Pibb.
There is nothing particularly disarming about the strip-plaza location either, inside a former Tony Roma's; and the decor, while entirely comfortable (with high ceilings, lots of windows, and the expected allotment of piñatas, sombreros, and serapes), won't set you to dreaming of a Cancùn courtyard.
But within the parameters of what it is -- namely a casual, inexpensive restaurant offering a big menu of authentic Mexican, Tex-Mex, and southwestern standards like enchiladas, taco salads, chimichangas, and burritos -- Jalapeño Loco does an admirable job, attentively preparing an array of tasty dishes from fresh, quality ingredients and then serving them up in ample portions.
Starting with the warm tortilla chips and cilantro-forward salsa, and ending with what is probably the best homemade flan in the region, the kitchen turns out some simple but spot-on fare. Lard-free refried beans, for instance, seem neither too dry and thick nor too thin and watery; grains of Mexican rice are tender, but maintain their integrity; and while queso fundido (baked cheese dip) flecked with spicy Mexican chorizo tastes assertively salty and just a bit greasy, there is no denying that it makes a lip-smacking partner to a long-necked bottle of icy Corona, garnished with the requisite slice of lime. (The small but well-stocked bar also carries Dos Equis, Tecate, Carta Blanca, Pacifico, and Negra Modelo, all at $2.75 a bottle; offers a small but solid collection of top-shelf tequilas, including Tres Generaciones, Cabo Wabo, Patron, the muy macho Tapatio Añejo, and the light, smoky Corralejo Añejo; and pours an honest, hard-working margarita, in a variety of flavors and sizes.)
If we have a choice for the filling in such items as burritos, enchiladas, and chimichangas, we'll generally pick shredded beef over ground, and certainly the braised and shredded beef served at Jalapeño Loco is remarkably lean, tender, and savory. So we were a little surprised and, okay, a wee bit disappointed when a pair of à la carte chiles rellenos arrived stuffed with ground, not shredded, beef in addition to the usual melted cheese. Turns out, though, that we needn't have cranked up the blood pressure: The coarsely ground beef was as lean and tender as the braised version, and contributed a depth of flavor to the firm, semisweet poblano pepper that cheese alone could never have accomplished.
In fact, an entertaining way to check out a host of fillings is by ordering the crazy-good enchiladas locos platter, with five enchiladas -- shredded beef, ground beef, chicken, beans, and cheese -- in a savory, brick-red ranchero sauce, smothered beneath a blanket of shredded lettuce, sour cream, and shredded Monterey jack. While the cheese enchilada was vaguely oily, the meat fillings were all beyond reproach. And for a mere $7.75, the massive portion was big enough for that night's dinner, as well as lunch the next day.
A combination of well-trimmed grilled chicken and grilled beef formed the filling for the two plump burritos on el loco special; served with beans and rice, this was another dish that defied consumption in one sitting. A sort of fajita-style carne asada was a hit too, featuring a thick slice of roasted rib-eye (quite succulent, although the marbling may have been a little heavy for some diners' tastes) topped with grilled onions and served with three soft flour tortillas. And the dozen or so small shrimp in the fiery camarones ala diabla were perfectly moist and crisp, with an aroma that was fresh as the sea.
In three visits, the shiny, ultra-smooth guacamole was one of only two dishes that seemed merely average: Punched up with plenty of cilantro, the freshly made avocado dip had a clean, refreshing flavor, but our own preference is for a chunkier, less processed-looking product.
We're glad to report, though, that the menu is filled with all sorts of other gems that seem bound to beckon us back, including chicken strips cooked with three kinds of peppers and finished with sour cream (pollo con crema), deep-fried shredded-beef burritos topped with nacho cheese and guacamole, and the kitchen's version of huevos rancheros, with rice, beans, and chorizo. There's also a menu for kids under 12, a handful of dishes devoted to vegetarian desires, and about a dozen "speedy lunch" options, all priced at less than $6 and available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Not that any of our meals suffered from slow pacing: Chips and salsa arrived almost before we had unfurled our paper napkins, drink orders quickly followed (although if you want water too, you probably should mention that up-front, since it isn't served routinely), and entrées appeared soon after. In fact, on two of three occasions, the main dishes arrived so quickly that our servers apparently forgot all about the starters we had ordered. So on the third visit, we got a little pushy, making it a point to declare our absolute need to try the melted cheese and chorizo dip before the main events were served; our plea seemed to do the trick -- the app actually made it to the table.
Sticklers for detail should also note that while the food arrives quickly, clearing away the used dishes between courses doesn't seem to be high on the staffers' to-do lists: If it happens at all, it happens a single plate at a time. What that means is that sometime you may very well find yourself staring down a half-empty bowl of salsa as you work your way through a ho-hum version of fried ice cream, drizzled with too much too-sweet chocolate and strawberry syrups -- which happens to be the second of the two dishes that didn't rock our world. On the other hand, we wouldn't turn down another serving of the kitchen's sleek and glorious flan, elevated by some of the darkest, most buttery overtones of caramel that have ever wowed a set of taste buds -- even if we had to eat it sitting in the middle of the dining-room floor. Really, it's that good.
Meantime, owner-manager and Cancùn native Auggie Torres strides through the room delivering greetings, smiles, and handshakes to his customers, many of whom already seem to be regulars. Probably that's what happens when staffers' standard goodbye includes the prediction "See you tomorrow!" Chances are, they will.
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