This week, I’m out of town at my company’s sales meeting. I’ll be really busy, so I’ve asked some of my good friends to blog for me this week. I hope you enjoy their posts!
This isn’t a normal review. It’s not about discovering a new place, it’s about rediscovering a memory.
You see, there was a period of time when the Jalapeno’s in Florence was still open where we didn’t miss a Friday night. We would show up and get our pager to wait. The manager would slip over to us, ask what our number was and then, miraculously, our pager went off about a minute later. (It’s good to be a regular!) The servers indulged Carla’s attempts to order in Spanish and we were sure they referred to us as the “no rice, double beans” couple.
When the announcement came several years ago that we were losing our Jalapeno’s (and to a Frisch’s no less!), we began our search for a replacement. Tom’s from Texas so good Mexican is nearly a biological necessity. Sure, we had the other Jalapeno’s in Madeira/Kenwood for a while, but eventually even that one closed (to re-open as Chi-Natti). In our search, we’ve tried a lot of different Mexican restaurants. One thing that became obvious is that, like Chinese food, Mexican food is very regional. For example, not all Mexican restaurants have a mole sauce if the owner and/or cook is not from a region that regularly includes mole (and moles vary from chef to chef, but that’s a strength not a weakness). Then there’s the problem of adjusting recipes to meet the norte americano palate. Often that results in the removal of any discernable flavors whatsoever. We’ve had some good food and we’ve had some pretty awful food, but we’ve never quite replaced Jalapeno’s in our hearts or, more precisely, stomachs.
Imagine our joy when we heard (via WineMeDineMe, of course), that Jalapeno’s was returning to the Cincinnati area with a counter service restaurant in Cold Spring, KY called Jalapeno’s Mex-Mex. We ventured over there in March to check them out. While you ordered at a counter, the food was brought out to you and you still got chips & salsa at your table. The menu was rather limited, but one of our favorites (tacos al carbon) was available. As we chatted with the woman working the dining room, we learned that our favorite mole sauce was scheduled to come back some time soon.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago. A new menu was released in back May and Jalapeno’s Mex-Mex is now a table service restaurant (even though the counter service menu is still up on the wall). As we sat down (ok, after trying to go to the counter to order), the traditional chips and salsa arrived. A pleasant surprise was the addition of a green salsa as well as the regular Jalapeno’s red salsa. If those salsas don’t fit your tastes, there’s a small chiller labeled “Salsa Bar” that has a number of other varieties.
All of our favorites are back and there are several new dishes and sides that will call us back to try. For example, in addition to the usual refried beans and Mexican rice, you can also choose white rice, black beans and homemade potatoes. Since we wanted to compare this new Jalapeno’s with our memories of our Jalapeno’s, we stuck with our favorites. We both went with our favorite side, the refried beans, and then picked a new one, the homemade potatoes.
Carla went with the enchiladas poblanos: three enchiladas (one each of beef, chicken and cheese) covered in mole sauce. Not only do some regions of Mexican not have mole sauce, each region’s mole can be a little different. Heck, each cook’s mole can be different. The Jalapeno’s version is darker and slightly spicier than most. Carla was so happy to taste this wonder again! The beans were just as good as she remembered. No one makes them as good as Jalapeno’s in our book. They’re creamy and there’s a hint of smokiness that we just don’t find in anyone else’s. We don’t know what’s in them. Most traditional recipes call for lard, but we don’t want to know. There are times that ignorance is bliss, and this is one of them. The homemade potatoes tasted great, but included tomatoes so Carla just ate around them.
Tom chose his regular, the tampiquena: a grilled sirloin strip served with a cheese enchilada, pico de gallo and flour tortillas. The dish is usually served with charro beans and rice, but he opted for the refried beans and potatoes this time. The tortillas were average for Cincinnati-area Mexican places. Tom is used to tortillas being made in-house back in Texas and has never understood why it’s rarely — if ever — done here. In any event, the steak was juicy, lightly-seasoned and well-suited for cutting into strips to put on the tortilla with the pico and any of the other items on the plate. The cheese enchilada was filled with a generous amount of cheese and covered with a mild red sauce and sour cream.
We were there for lunch on a Saturday and it wasn’t overly busy, but business was steady. Our server was attentive without overdoing it. Drinks got refilled when they needed to be refilled, as did the chips and salsa. Drinks are limited to soft drinks and bottled beer (domestic and Mexican light lagers for the most part). The dining room doesn’t feel quite as kitschy as their former locations even though we recognized most everything hanging on the walls.
So does Jalapeno’s MexMex live up to the memory? Absolutely. Even better, though, are the little tweaks that have been made to the menu. It’s a good example of a place understanding what it does well, but not getting stagnant.
If only they’d come back a little closer to Florence…