Pearl of Querétaro
Hidden away in dark corners of suburbia, culinary treasures can often be found. These restaurants, which typically serve genuine ethnic fare, bring much needed flavor to the urban landscape and offer eaters myriad welcome benefits. These include unused bike racks, ample parking, and available tables, even during peak dining hours. In the cities I frequent, I always seek out one of these eateries. In Denver, it’s a little Thai place called Pearl of Siam; in Austin, Drakula— a Romanian schnitzel and cabbage joint smashed between a karate studio and a hitch shop. Until now, Santa Fe hasn’t really offered quite what I’m looking for; or rather, it hasn’t since Guadalajara Grill on Cerrillos Road called it quits a few years ago.
Tucked in an easy-to-miss space around the corner from Albertsons on St. Francis Drive and Zia Road is Jalapeño’s, an alternative to the typical downtown eatery. Jalapeño’s— which also manages burrito carts on Airport and Cerrillos roads— has simple, straightforward Mexican food (the recipes hail from the central town of Querétaro, Mexico) with a dash of seafood offerings. From tostadas to burritos to quesadillas, there’s a lot to work with; Jalapeño’s allows customers to spruce up their dish of choice with one or more from a list of 13 meat selections, as well as one veggie offering. Pork fans get the most use of their free will by choosing one of five piggy options. But unadventurous fans of chicken and beef need not fear; these selections are also on the menu— alongside the less typical beef tripe and tongue.
The only thing on the menu that’s unappealing is the choice of font— it’s one of those oddly shaped types that can be difficult to read from a distance, especially on the big, colorful, wall-mounted menu boards. Do yourself a favor: grab one of the to-go menus off the counter when you walk in and let your mouth water, rather than force your eyes into a squint. On a recent visit, I was told the menu is being reprinted, and in the next few weeks, more seafood will be available.
After binging on a plate of shrimp fajitas, I must confirm that this is a fantastic idea. Jalapeño’s owner Raul Aboytes knows how to cook up sea critters right. Resting on a bed of green and yellow peppers and onions, the shrimp were dusted with red chile powder, giving them a gentle spice that was just tangy enough to keep my giant glass of agua fresca (a traditional Mexican cold beverage— mine was thick with cinnamon and a touch of strawberry) from being drained out of necessity. Once I added a little of the habanero salsa to the fajitas, my agua fresca disappeared, and the full flavor of the shrimp revealed itself.
Since it opened in its present location early last spring (after providing food inside the now-closed WilLee’s Blues Club), Jalapeño’s has been my own little reward for a good bike ride down the Rail Trail after a trip to the Santa Fe Farmers Market. I, like most regular eaters, found something I loved— tacos al pastor (marinated pork and pineapple)— and dutifully stuck with them. Fearing disappointment, despite always enjoying the little stolen bites from the plates of others, it took courage to deviate from the al pastor. Now, however, that the stuffed quesadilla has crossed my lips, my relationship with those tacos may have to remain an open one. With just a tiny bit of cheese and a ton of meat— in this case juicy, slowcooked barbacoa (barbecued lamb and beef)— the quesadillas barely needed the garnish of sour cream and fresh guacamole that accompanies them.
While the tacos and quesadillas have stolen my heart, the burritos and enchiladas (go for the chicken with mole— that little taste of chocolate is a dream) could easily vie for a place in the rotation. As with everything else on the menu, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the burritos; they’re solid and consistent. Packed with carnitas (or whichever of the meats you fancy), rice, and beans, the burrito is perfect for the on-the-go lunch, though by ordering it, you might miss out on some of the fun of Jalapeño’s, like hearing Aboytes chitchat with customers above the piped-in reggae or Spanish hiphop in a brightly colored room bedecked with skulls of all kinds. It’s a fun mix of Hot Topic goth and beachfront-like vibrancy with a touch of kitsch — and a whole lot of flavor.