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Crazy Good 

Jalapeño Loco spices up the Mentor scene.

Auggie Torres (center) and his staff have made - Jalapeo Loco a worthy stop. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Auggie Torres (center) and his staff have made Jalapeo Loco a worthy stop.
Mexican restaurants seem to be filling the niche once carved by Chinese eateries: They're inexpensive, ubiquitous, and often not so great. So when chef Brian Doyle of World's Fare Culinary Services raved to us about Mentor's new Jalapeño Loco (7289 Mentor Avenue, 440-918-1503), we couldn't wait to check it out. A recent chow-down there revealed that Doyle's judgment was spot-on: While there's nothing special about the suburban strip-plaza setting or the serape-and-sombrero decor, the restaurant's food is definitely a cut above average.

Don't come here looking for nopales, menudo, or horchata: The big menu is all about Mex-American standards like tacos, tostadas, and chimichangas. But within those parameters, good-quality ingredients and attentive preparation make all the difference, resulting in dishes as fresh as they are distinctively flavorful. Take the requisite tortilla chips and salsa -- the chips paper-thin and fresh from the fryer, the salsa smooth and sassy, with a high-octane interplay of hot, tart, and salty flavors that gave us goose-bumps.

Melted cheese is real cheese, not waxy "cheese-food product." Earthy refried beans are neither too watery nor too dry, and a big, dark-green poblano in our chile-relleno platter ($5.50, including a taco, refried beans, and guacamole) was fresh and firm, but fork-tender -- and spicy enough to knock out a springtime head cold. A chimichanga platter ($7.99) was memorable for its two fried flour tortillas stuffed with loads of tender, greaseless, braised and shredded beef; add toppings of sour cream, melted cheese, and smooth homemade guacamole, with a savory brick-red sauce on the side, and scarfing down this bad boy was like recess for the mouth.

Liquor licenses are in the works; when they finally arrive, the bar will specialize in margaritas, sangria, and a sizable collection of Mexican beers, including Tecate, Pacifico, Negra Modelo, and Dos Equis Amber, at $2.75 a bottle. We haven't gotten around to dessert yet, but Doyle recommends the homemade flan ($2.75).

Jalapeño Loco is open for lunch and dinner, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Out to lunch . . . Downtown workers who've had their fill of fast food are making a beeline to Soup & Stew, open since early March in the Galleria food court. The little lunch spot is the newest culinary project for Moroccan native and former Manhattan chef Moha Orchid, who recently relocated to Cleveland for (get this, naysayers) our "quality of life." The gregarious Orchid is an outspoken advocate of homemade, healthful foods, and his seasonal offerings reflect his passion for dishes that comfort both the body and the soul. Now, with balmy days finally approaching, Orchid is busy working on his spring menu, which debuts in May. Out will go the steam table, the stews, and the popular chicken pot pie; in their place, customers will find veggie wraps, salads, and cool gazpacho, all the better for warm-weather noshing. (Breakfast may be in the offing too.) The chef, whose N.Y.C. spot Cookies and Couscous drew glowing words from New York Times operatives, is also exploring suburban neighborhoods for an eventual full-service restaurant.

Saddle up . . . It's been a little more than a year since fire destroyed Blazin' Bill's, Geauga County's popular BBQ joint. Now, word on the trail is that the ramblin' restaurant has been rebuilt in its original location (12891 Main Market Road, Mantua) and is slated to reopen May 1. As always, the menu will feature Bill's baby back ribs and barbecued chicken; other traditional draws have been the full bar and what may be the most diverse clientele this side of Abilene, with everyone from families to bridal parties to biker dudes and dudettes sinking their chompers into the tasty 'cue. The new Bill's will operate seven nights a week; rustle up a report on owners Joyce and Joe Piteo's progress by calling 440-834-1111.

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