"Isn't Jalapenos a chain?" asked a friend, disdainfully curling his lip. "I heard it's just microwave Mexican," another grumbled.
"I went there once," explained a third. "They had a straw palapa roof over the bar that kept sticking me in the forehead. I was afraid it would poke my eyes out. So I never went back."
Despite all this nay-saying, I was determined to try the place. For one thing, you can never have too many sources of good Tex-Mex. (I'm still hoping to replace my favorite Pico's location, at Kirby and 59, which closed years ago.) For another, I'd heard that Jalapenos recently revamped its menu, concocting a number of tempting new grilled items leaning more toward pan-Latino cuisine. Seductive whispers reached my ears, tales of dishes spiked with achiote or chimichurri, chilies stuffed with raisins and apples, and calamari flamed with brandy.
"We've revised our menu before," explains Mario Romero, one of Jalapenos' owners. "After all, we've been in business for 12 years. But this time was the most ambitious. Our chef, Secco Moran, traveled all over Peru, Costa Rica and of course Mexico to find new flavors and ingredients. And more new additions to the menu are still to come."
The clincher, now that balmy evenings are briefly here, was the addition of an outdoor patio and, even better, a barfly-friendly botanas menu. This latest intelligence demanded my careful investigation.
Preliminary research reveals that Jalapenos is not a chain. Three former college roommates own it: brothers Tomas and Mario Romero, and Jaime Crespo. The partners opened the first Jalapenos in Cancun, Mexico, which possibly seeded the scurrilous franchise rumor. They've since sold that one but fortunately kept this one. Nor are they zapping prefab food in the microwave. And the prickly palapa that menaced my poor friend is history, I am happy to report, removed eight months ago in remodeling.
I assembled a crew and started with lunch. I should mention that my companions were devotees of Chuy's, which is just around the corner and sells piles of Tex-Mex and gallons of stiff frozen margaritas to raucous postcollegiate crowds. By contrast, Jalapenos is a blessedly quiet, calm room, populated mainly by fortysomethings, its open airy spaces painted in cheerful tones of deep raspberry and marine blue. The complimentary tortilla chips and two salsas (one red, one green) passed our taste test with flying colors. The chips are thick, crisp and salty, and I particularly like the red salsa, a roasted tomato version with dark, smoky undertones. My friends were impressed by the tomatillo sauce, green and pungent with cilantro, served piping hot.
"Ooh, there's a lot more to choose from here," noted one of the Chuy's fans, flipping excitedly through the three-page menu.
I spied the famous spinach enchiladas blanketed in cilantro cream sauce at tables all around me, but I opted instead for the new "son of spinach" edition with shrimp, dubbed Enchiladas Tampico ($9.95). This plate sports two large enchiladas, one red-sauced and one green, with a pile of fluffy white rice studded with yellow corn kernels and an order of glossy black beans. Inside the chewy tortillas, the spinach was tender and the shrimp big and meaty. The green tomatillo sauce is good, but I went crazy over the vibrant red guajillo chili sauce spiked with just a touch of chipotle, slopping it over the rice and swabbing it up with more tortillas. The plain rice acts as an admirable foil for the sauces in general, so I didn't miss the more common Spanish-style stuff. The black beans are blameless but I'll bet lower in fat than those served elsewhere; I confess I missed that lascivious aroma of lard.
We were also very happy with the tangy, bright chipotle sauce of the new shrimp chipotle entree ($12.95). Five big, brawny shrimp are split and stuffed with cheese and prickly-hot slivers of fresh jalapeno pepper then wrapped in bacon and grilled. The vivid orange-red sauce is a killer, sharper and more potent than its sibling guajillo sauce, which is also based on cream but permeated with the strong smoky flavor of chipotle peppers.
We tried the chicken fajitas ($10.95), important to our research as sort of a baseline for local Tex-Mex. The chicken was tenderly grilled and moist, underseasoned for my taste but judged just right by my friend. The meat is served with enough very lightly grilled onions and roasted green peppers to fill several of the small fresh flour tortillas, and the portions of guacamole and sour cream are plentiful. "I hate it when places don't give you enough stuff with your fajita meat," he noted approvingly. "It's nice to have plenty."
Lunch, we all agreed, was a success. Our next mission was to check out the evening bar menu. Jalapenos' weekday happy hour runs from 4:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., so we timed our foray late; after all, what can a bona fide food spy really learn from a free buffet? The plan was to capture a table on the new patio, but we found it completely full of very happy office workers, ties discarded and jackets askew, an empty margarita glass big as a birdbath rising ominously from the wreckage. Even the clay-potted plants looked tipsy. The patio made me nervous anyway: The area used to be one of the two driveways into the parking lot and is now marked off by a precariously tilting iron gate and a couple of flimsy orange parking cones. What if a crazed Kirby driver simply crashed through it? I wondered. Silly paranoid me, I felt safer inside at the bar. "Don't worry, the patio is only in its first phase," explained Romero. "It will look much better when we're done."
Once perched on barstools we found a wonderful selection of "botanas de bar" that might elsewhere be more pretentiously described as tapas, here reasonably priced from $3.95 to $7.95 per plate. I loved the snapper and salmon skewers ($4.95), but be warned that there's only one of each to a portion. The fresh fish fillets are dusted with cornmeal, threaded onto bamboo skewers then grilled, all the while basted with an achiote sauce. The result, served on a deep-green banana leaf, is heavenly: slightly crunchy outside, lovely and moist inside, with a faint tang of deep-red achiote and grill smoke.
Another excellent choice is calamari al ajillo ($5.50), a generous heap of tender calamari rings gently sauteed in olive oil redolent with garlic and hot chilies, which gets a flamboyant firing with brandy back in the kitchen. (Perhaps wisely, they don't mix drinkers with flaming dishes at the bar.) We awarded extra points for the soft French bread provided to soak up every bit of sauce left in the dish. The crawfish quesadilla ($6.95), on the other hand, needs work. It started out well, with large crawfish tails layered with melted white cheese tucked between two soft flour tortillas. The difficulty was that the subtle flavor of the crawfish vanished in the spicy avalanche of pico de gallo and guacamole. I'd like to try this dish with the guajillo sauce -- or how about that chipotle cream?
I'm still trying to figure out the combination botanas plate ($7.95). It's an attractive pairing of crunchy fried calamari and jalapenos -- barflies like fried things, you know -- but inexplicably accompanied by a shallow dish of gluey chili con queso like a third wheel. I hope that no one would consider dunking fried calamari in the queso instead of the perfectly serviceable marinara sauce provided; the firecracker-hot jalapenos, stuffed, battered and deep-fried, don't need a sauce of any sort. So what's the purpose of the queso? I don't know, and it bugs me.
I must say that bartender Michelle Lyons prepares a wickedly good margarita from Jalapenos' extensive list, several variations of which are her own invention. There are gaudy, bright-colored tropical versions, mango and raspberry and peach -- "I don't drink those," Lyons sniffs -- as well as purists' top-shelf concoctions crafted from aged tequila and Mexican brandy. The tequila by the shot selection is equally serious, ranging from the serviceable $4 Dos Reales to the lofty Herradura Supreme Select at $18 a pop.
"This is all about embracing traditional Latin American ingredients and giving them a Texas twist," Romero reminds me. "Our managers and kitchen staff have been with us since the beginning, and we all pay careful attention to our food. That is the strong foundation we build on, and I like to think it shows." I think Romero is right. Forget the urban mythology: Jalapenos is a place worth adding to your list.
Jalapenos, 2702 Kirby, (713)524-1668.