I am not wary of fast-fusion restaurants in general. To wit, there's a terrific Vietnamese-Honduran place in Gulfton called Hoagies & More. The place doesn't serve any hoagies at all, but does make some excellent pupusas and bubble teas.
But it can go terribly wrong, as with the Chinese-Italian-Mexican hybrid that is La Casa de Frida on North Main. The taste of some Italian ragout-topped enchiladas I had there last year still lingers offensively.
I wasn't sure where El Jalapeño would fall along this spectrum when I stumbled into it on Monday night and saw its menu was a mixture of Mexican, Honduran and Chinese cuisine.
Luckily, the mix works.
El Jalapeño doesn't seem to be related to the two other El Jalapeños around town; instead, it stands on its own here inside a converted filling station in Northside. Notices out front make it clear that El Jalapeño has recently applied for a TABC permit, and I wonder if that will bring in the crowds the little restaurant so sorely needs.
On Monday night, it was so quiet inside El Jalapeño that my boyfriend thought it was closed at first. Only one employee was there, a friendly man who spoke no English but guided us through the hybrid menu with great interest.
He was out of more than a few things -- no big surprise, given the general emptiness of the place and the sheer fact that it was a Monday. But when my boyfriend and I finally settled on sopes, pupusas, pastelitos and a Honduran enchilada, he got to work fast.
The pastelitos -- a Honduran twist on the empanada -- came out first. The reason I like pastelitos so much more than empanadas is the same reason I prefer a Honduran pupusa to a Mexican quesadilla: Both Honduran dishes have thick, toothsome exterior, usually made with with coarsely ground corn, that's just endlessly satisfying to sink your teeth into. These were no exception, and the beef inside was roughly chopped fajita meat; no anemic ground beef here.
Like most of the other dishes that came out, the pastelitos were topped with the cabbage shreds that are typical of Honduran cuisine along with a spicy, creamy sauce that had an unfamiliar kick to it. That same cabbage was in a slaw called curtido, served alongside my pupusa, which was stuffed with a thin layer of salty pork skin and cheese.
The traditional tomato salsa on the side was missing, however, but I found an ample substitute in the garish orange salsa that came with the hot corn chips. Its lack of heat was surprising given its habanero-orange color, but the fresh, sweet sauce worked so perfectly with the pupusa that I wondered if it hadn't been meant for that purpose all along.
Across the table, my boyfriend was quite happy with his two fajita sopes, the only Mexican item we'd ordered. Each pile of beef was stacked atop a thick corn foundation not dissimilar to that of the pupusas and pastelitos, but still notably Mexican in its construction. And instead of cabbage and a spicy cream sauce, it was topped with lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream.
My Honduran enchilada was the only mediocre point of the meal: unremarkable aside from that wonderfully spicy cream sauce, its thin base too similar to a poorly constructed gordita to register as anything worth ordering again.
But as I looked over the remains of our otherwise excellent meal -- and two empty glasses of jamaica -- I had to wonder again why we were the only patrons. The charming menu drawn in chalk and the friendly service were inviting; the food ensures you'll return, and so do the prices.
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El Jalapeño's Facebook page attests to a normally boisterous restaurant with crawfish boils and birthday parties, so I hope that we just caught them on an off night.
Regardless, I'll find out for sure soon enough -- I can't wait to go back and try the avocado smoothies and Jalapeño fried rice to see if the Asian side of the menu is as good as the other two.