Blaze of Glory

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The interior of Jarro Cafe on Gessner is pleasantly air- conditioned. But veteran ethnic-food explorer Jay Francis (see "Ethnic Explorer," August 3, 2000) is mopping the sweat from his forehead. I warned him. The salsas at Jarro Cafe are set-your-face-on-fire picante.

Houston hot sauce has been in a slump lately. Maybe they toned down the heat level for visiting Super Bowl fans and forgot to zip it back up again when the tourists left. I had chips and salsa at El Pueblito on Richmond the other night, and the hot sauce was as timid as gazpacho. I finally had to ask for a bowl of pickled jalapeños, just to remember what chiles taste like. And it's the same in Mexican, Tex-Mex and other Latino restaurants all over town. I had gotten so used to insipid salsa that Jarro Cafe's salsas were a revelation.

"After I visited Thailand a couple of years ago, nothing in Houston tasted hot to me anymore," Francis says with a smile on his dripping-wet face. "But this stuff is really hot."


Jarro Cafe

1521 Gessner, 713-827-0373. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Chilaquiles: $5.75
Egg tacos: $2.50
Tacos with beef and chorizo: $3.75
Tacos al pastor: $3.75

With every order at Jarro Cafe, they bring you five different salsas and some lime quarters in six brightly colored bowls arranged on a condiment tray. The "Mayan" salsa is made of chopped purple onions flecked with Mexican oregano and chile powder and moistened with lime juice. There's an oily, brick-red ointment that looks like Asian chile paste, but it's actually ground chile arbol sweetened with a little sugar and mixed with oil. The deep green sauce tastes like chopped jalapeños and cilantro in vinegar. Then there's a bright orange sauce made with lots of pureed red chiles. And last, but by no means least, there's a neon-green salsa. After tasting them individually, we decide that the neon-green one is made with pureed tomatillos and serranos, and it's the one most likely to rip out your tonsils.

Francis ladles the green stuff over his tacos al pastor, which are made with pork slices that have been slow-roasted with pineapple and then crisped on a griddle. Francis declares them the best he's had in Houston. All the tacos here are served Mexican-style, on two fresh corn tortillas that have been lightly griddle-fried until they're flexible but not crisp.

We also sample the beef-and-mushroom tacos, which are fabulously flavored with a little bacon, and the beef-and-chorizo tacos, which are a nice combo of thin steak slices and crumbly sausage with lots of orange grease. The carnitas tacos are tasty, but the pork doesn't have any of the crispy bits you get in Mexican meat market-style carnitas.

Oddly, there's a Jarro Cafe trailer parked in front of the restaurant that seems to do more business than the restaurant itself. For many years, the restaurant's owner sold tacos out of the trailer, which was then located in a shopping-center parking lot a little farther north up Gessner. Unwilling to pay rent for a trailer space in somebody else's parking lot after he opened his restaurant, he parked the trailer out front as a sort of sign. But the trailer's legions of fans steadfastly refuse to go inside and sit down. They eat standing up out front in the parking lot. They're doing a great job of advertising the quality of the tacos, however. You can't drive by the restaurant without noticing the crowds.

Jarro Cafe's slogan is "The best tacos in town." Some of the tacos here are indeed superlative, and so are many of the other items on the menu. But what brings you back is the combination of great Mexican dishes and stupendous salsas.

A reader named Tim Joseph first told me about Jarro Cafe in an e-mail describing the "six different sauces and pickled relishes that range from mild to flame thrower..." According to Joseph, the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Pinedo, are originally from Mexico City. Mr. Pinedo is evidently a big fan of the Beatles, as posters of the Fab Four are the main decoration in the restaurant, which occupies a former Pizza Hut location.

The owner stopped by our table one day while a friend and I were eating lunch to ask if everything was okay. The professional logo and the beautiful presentations made my lunchmate suspect that Jarro was part of a chain, so she asked him about it. Indeed, the Jarro Cafe taco chain also has locations in Cancún and Mexico City, the owner said.

We asked so many questions that he assumed we were planning to open a restaurant of our own. He asked me whether I was more interested in a restaurant franchise or a trailer like the one out front. I told him I really liked the taco-trailer idea. The one out front cost around $50,000, he told me.

When I looked surprised, he told me that he happened to have two smaller used taco trailers sitting out back. For as little as $10,000, I could be in business by the end of the month.

The best thing I sampled at Jarro Cafe was a breakfast dish called aja baraja. It was a huge helping of chilaquiles with a thin grilled steak and two fried eggs on top. The menu description read, "Chilaquiles, extra hot, with carne asada, two eggs and beans." The chilaquiles, which are tortillas cooked with salsa, were tinted bright green. I suspect it was because they were made with the incendiary neon-green salsa.

On that visit, my dining companion and I also sampled the egg tacos, which were quite different from the standard Houston breakfast tacos. Instead of the flour tortilla-wrapped scrambled eggs we're used to, Jarro Cafe serves rectangles of a cut-up omelette on top of a double corn tortilla, lightly fried on the griddle and then topped with green salsa.

While Jarro Cafe is serving one of the best Mexican breakfasts in the city -- and definitely the spiciest -- unfortunately, the fabulous food experience is marred by the subpar beverages. A Mexican breakfast at my old stand-by, Gorditas Aguascalientes, for instance, includes the options of freshly squeezed orange or carrot juice (I like them mixed half and half), licuados (smoothies) and aguas frescas, as well as coffee de olla, atole and hot chocolate. Except for the almond agua fresca called horchata, all Jarro Cafe has to offer is mediocre coffee served with nondairy creamer and commercial orange juice in a paper cup. In truth, the dearth of beverage selections is equally frustrating at dinnertime. The fabulous hot-and-spicy tacos at Jarro Cafe cry out for cold cerveza. Perhaps in time, the owners will explore the idea of getting a couple of juicers, some decent coffee and a beer permit.

In the car on the way home, my breakfast companion, another hot-and-spicy-foods enthusiast, asked me, "Did that food taste really hot to you?"

"It sure did," I answered, wiping my still perspiring forehead.

"Good," she sighed with relief. "For a minute there, I thought I was losing my edge."

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