"We were really lucky on those slot machines," says John Galvan, waving, for proof, at the framed winner's photos on the wall behind him. "I won a big jackpot, then a year later so did my wife. With our savings, that slot machine money was enough that we decided to go for it."
While working at his brother's machine shop reconditioning valves, Galvan (no relation to the family that runs Irma's) dreamed of opening his own restaurant. "I used to kick around the idea of opening a taco house," he says, "but I always thought I'd have a place on the north side, like Doneraki's on Fulton, near where I grew up. But there's just so much competition on that side of town, we thought we'd try breaking some new ground out here in the Champions area. As a matter of fact, we stopped to look at this restaurant on our way to the casino, and we knew it was the one."
The spic-and-span little taco shop occupies a former "gourmet" burger joint's storefront in a strip shopping center, but the anonymous shell belies the boisterous family warmth inside. In addition to the photos of John and his wife, Leticia, grinning beside gleaming one-armed bandits, their youngest daughter, four-month-old Melanie, can often be caught napping in her baby chair on one of the tables. The restaurant's name is the pet name of their firstborn daughter, Jennifer, and the secret family recipes the Galvans use for their breakfast and lunch plates came from Leticia's mother. "My mother-in-law uses all fresh ingredients, like chili pods instead of chili powder," Galvan says. "Cooking from scratch -- that's really her secret." Other family members and children and friends often drop by to chat; even the neighborhood mailman seems to know everyone in the cafe by name. This taco house may not be physically located on the north side, but there's no doubt its spiritual roots are deep in the old neighborhood.
Fresh, homemade flour tortillas form the centerpiece of Jenita's menu. At breakfast, wrapped around chorizo or machacado and eggs, they form soft tacos; at lunch, they cradle tender marinated meats. "I've read in a restaurant magazine that I should be making our tortillas by machine because it's faster and more efficient," says Galvan. "But that's the last thing I want to change. I don't ever want to get so busy that we can't keep making our own tortillas by hand."
A friend and I decided to start with Jenita's tacos, of course, at a recent lunch; he got spicy chicken; I got spicy pork. While both were fresh, hot and good -- and even better, bargain priced at $1.89 each -- we ended up fighting over the spicy pork taco. It was stuffed with so many chunks of marinated pork and fresh red tomatoes, confetti-thin strips of crunchy lettuce and heaps of grated cheddar cheese that I could barely stretch one of those wondrously soft tortillas around it. The taco was dressed with a vibrant red sauce redolent of chile arbol; rather than mouth-searingly hot, it was more a palate-tingling sort of spicy. I didn't realize until after our meal that the Galvans will cook you up fresh corn tortillas with a little advance warning. Estimable as the flour tortillas are, I can't wait to go back and try the same spicy pork filling with an elemental corn masa wrapping.
We grabbed a couple of imported Mexican sodas from the spotless cooler -- fizzy mango and sweet apple -- and proceeded to examine the list of lunch plates. (Purists take note: Jenita's also stocks Coca-Cola in big icy-cold bottles, not cans.) Lunch plates run $5.50 to $6.35 and combine just about any entree described on the helpfully bilingual menu -- tacos, enchiladas, tamales, burritos or flautas -- with rice, refried beans, salad and two tortillas. Jenita's Spanish-style rice is outstanding: light, fluffy and agreeably permeated with sauteed garlic and cumin, and the refried beans have that smoky bacon flavoring I consider essential. I have to admit I ignored the little heap of salad that's a carbon copy of the taco topping; I was busy mashing my rice and beans together.
On the lunch plates, my friend aced me this time with Jenita's homemade tamales, which also can be ordered for takeout at $6.50 per dozen. These tamales were stuffed with lightly seasoned pork and jalapenos and were perfectly cooked, not soggy or droopy, not too greasy, but just right. I went with the chicken flautas, Friday's special, instead; again, the flautas were made with flour tortillas, tightly wound around herb-marinated chicken and deep-fried so flash-crispy they shattered under my fork. I doused them with the smoky, deep-red table salsa, a garlicky, mildly spicy cooked version, and tried to be judicious in ladling on the real sour cream and more grated cheddar. My only regret is that I didn't order guacamole as a side dish ($2.50); it was all the slightly dry flautas needed to be perfect. Or perhaps next time I'll come by on Monday, which is chicken mole day, or maybe Saturday, for menudo or barbacoa....
"How did you hear about us?" Galvan asks each new customer. He seems genuinely curious and modestly surprised by the enthusiastic word of mouth that's spreading about Jenita's Taco House. Open since October 1997, the Galvans have been so warmly welcomed by their new neighborhood that six months ago they knocked down the south wall and expanded into the space next door. "The seating area was just too small, and I needed better air-conditioning," admits Galvan. "Last summer it got kinda hot in here." This recent expansion brings their table total to just under a dozen, including the two shiny aluminum cocktail-size tables on the sidewalk out front.
"Someday I'd like to have a restaurant named for each of my daughters," says the proud papa. "But right now, I need to figure out how to stay open for dinner." Jenita's Taco House currently closes at 3 p.m. because, Galvan explains, "I'd rather be at home with my kids at five o'clock."
Jenita's Taco House, 4444 FM 1960 West No. 6, (281)440-9726.