Pros: Excellent food, spacious set up, friendly staff, easy to find
Cons: parking can be a problem, all parking is metered and tow zones enforced
For those of you who have read my staggeringly negative review on The Edgewater Cafe in Manchester-by-the-sea, Massachusetts, you know how I despaired of ever finding good Mexican Cuisine here in the North Shore. I am very happy to be able to now write this review on my "new find", Jalpeno's Authentic Mexican Restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
What is that heavenly smell, honey?
Last weekend my honey and I were taking in downtown Gloucester, Mass., figuring it was finally safe to do so now that the majority of the tourists have returned home (at least until something called "leaf season", whatever that is). As we ambled hand in hand down the street, periodically glancing back to make sure our dubiously parked car was still where we left it and had no bright orange traffic ticket on the windshield, we suddenly walked into an incredible, savory aroma wafting from an unidentified store front.
Since it was dinner time, we decided to see if we could figure out which restaurant in this area the aromas were coming from. We passed the middle eastern place, El Souk, getting a whiff of a decidedly more, er, pungeant aroma, and hurried past. We walked by Passports, too many different regional cuisines made for a very rank smell there, so that was not the place either. Finally we come to Jalapenos, tucked snugly away into a small store front, and the wonderful smells were all around us. With great trepidation we enter, noticing in our astuteness that it is another Massachusetts Mexican restaurant and wondering what evils may lurk inside this one ("Are they owned by those Edgewater people?, I ponder aloud. "God, I hope not", replies my honey).
The All-Important First Impression
Walking into Jalapenos was a vastly different experience than walking into The Edgewater. I would have to place Jalapenos in a similar scale of size to The Edgewater, but what a vastly different use of their space! Jalapenos is small, but by reducing the number of tables, including booths along the wall in one room, and creating a more intimate and uncrowded environment, they were able to get a feeling of a much bigger space. Somehow, they have managed to include an "L" shaped bar as well without losing the intimate feeling of the rooms. As you walk into the restaurant, you are struck by its bright decor. Although the decor runs a tad high on the "cheese" factor, the vibrant purples, blues, greens, reds and yellows of the serape blankets, sombreros, flowers and other items is exactly the right feel for a Mexican restaurant. My favorite touch in the decor were the intricately made, multi-colored, tissue paper flowers in vases on the tables.
Standing in the only space in Jalapenos that feels in any way crowded, the entry hall, you can see that the owners appear to have taken one large storefront and divided it into two rooms, with an open arch between them instead of a doorway. I have time to barely notice that the right side is tables only and non-smoking, while the left side is the bar area with booths, tables and a smoking section, before our smiling hostess comes out to greet us. Being smokers, we choose a window booth in the bar/smoking section for dinner, and were then able to watch the activity on the street while we ate. Some college kids pledging a fraternity offered up some very entertaining evening entertainment during our meal, which is neither here nor there aside form our hoping that they at least made the fraternity in exchange for their abject humiliation in the middle of downtown Gloucester.
The Menu and Ordering Experience
The hosted presented us with Jalapenos's unique menus, printed on cream paper and affixed permanently to a large wooden board, took our drink order for the bar, and moved away to allow us to complete our selection. Imagine my pleased surprise when the drinks arrived, with the smiling hostess, in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, due to the size of the menu and the number of intriguing items listed we needed more time to choose. Our hostess withdrew to seat a new arrival, saying our waitress would be coming back to our table in a moment. As it turned out, our waitress had been on a break, but the transition was so smooth as to be unnoticable. Compared to the truculent, slow service at The Edgewater - well, the service at Jalapenos was so superb you can't even compare the two.
The Jalapenos menu itself was a pleasing combination of standard Mexican fare with interesting chef's choice items from different regions and countries such as the SouthWest, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico mixed in throughout. Everything on the menu was grouped well and, most importantly (and again in direct opposition to the evil Edgewater) clearly described. The menu sections (to the best of my recollection, as it is hard to abscond with a large wooden menu in your purse) included Appetizers, Chef's Specials, Burritos, Tapas, Enchiladas, Combination Dinners, Chimchangas, Fajitas, Vegetarian, and Desserts. Under Appetizers we noticed the Jalapeno Poppers, though we opted not to try them after our horrible experience at Edgewater deciding to get a description when the waitress returned. As it turned out later, the poppers were the real thing - jalapenos in a breaded crust stuffed with white cheese, with a salsa for dipping on the side. Whew!
My honey decided on the home made Southwestern Salsa and Guacamole with Fresh Tortilla Chips appetizer for us, preferring to save our appetites for dinner. He then chose a menu item he had never heard of called Pay Azteca. I agreed with him on saving room for dinner, deciding to go with a comparison choice and try the Chile Rellenos here. Depending on what you order, most dinners come with a side of fresh, home made twice fried beans (not canned), Oaxaca cheese on top and a side of Spanish rice. There was a salad option for the diet conscious at a minimal extra charge. It took us bout 8 minutes to decide after asking the hostess to send the waitress back to us, and in the meantime we finished our drinks (he was having Dos Equis on draft, I was having a wonderful fresh Pina Colada, refreshingly not made from a mix). Our waitress, who by this time had three other tables in the smoking section, was on the ball, coming over immediately after we set our menus down.
Our waitress was as pleasant as our hostess, taking our food and drink orders. Our chips, salsa, guacamole and new drinks (fresh iced tea for me this time) arrived within just a few moments. We were able to settle back and look around the restaurant and street (poor frat boy wannabes) while waiting for dinner. We noticed that by this time the other side of the restaurant was about half full, and our side was also about half full. A good crowd for a Tuesday night, I thought. With more bodies in the room I was able to get a more accurate view of the restaurant's size, and was pleased to note that even when full, it would not feel crowded, in spite of it's small size. Jalapenos should be proud of its designer, since they have achieved what the Edgewater decidedly did not. As we looked around both rooms, I was also pleased to note that the dress of diners ran the gamut from casual to dressy, making customers feel right at home. The waiters and waitresses all had on black shirts and blue jeans, which I think is entirely appropriate for a restaurant such as Jalapenos.
Our food arrived in short order, again perfectly timed to the completion of our appetizer and drinks. My honey's dinner, the Pay Azteca, was definitely the more visually interesting of the two, although the Chile Rellenos were also attractively prepared. Pay Azteca turned out to be a dish from the SouthWest region. Layers of home made tortillas, sweet corn, black beans, lettuce, white cheese, peppers, squash, tomato, avocado and other vegetables alternated with layers of grilled chicken in a wonderfully tangy-sweet southwestern sauce. The sauce was absolutely perfect for the dish - not too heavy, very well balanced with the spicy peppers and sweet corn. It was just spicy enough to enjoy without being too mild, and the sweetness of it was a great addition to the flavor. After having my obligatory "one bite", I was banished form his plate so he could enjoy his meal, leaving me to try my Rellenos.
The Chile Rellenos at Jalapenos rank as the most intriguing I have tasted. On the one hand, they kept to tradition, with perfectly cooked, peeled and seeded Poblano peppers stuffed with white cheese and spices layered under a home made red sauce. Home made guacamole was provided on the side for a topping, but I found I did not need it. Although the chiles were prepared and grilled to perfection, melting in your mouth in an explosion of spicy heat and soothing cheese, it was the red sauce that turned out to be the star of the dish. The cook took the traditional tomato based chile relleno sauce and made it his own by adding an incredient or two to create a tart, sweet follow up taste to the spicy chiles. I loved it! It was hard to tear myself away from the Chiles long enough to try the fresh side dishes for what I was coming to decide was my new epinions review. Tear myself away I did, and the home made beans and rice were just as savory as the rest of the meal. The beans were obviously fresh, with none of the strange coloring and texture you find in restaurants that use canned beans, The cheese was on the side as a garnish, there if your tastes required it, but unobtrusive. The Spanish rice was perhaps the lightest in texture I have come across, with none of the usual grease to weigh it down. My honey and I were both very pleased with our meals at this restaurant.
After we had completed our meals we were promptly presented with the dessert tray. Sadly, we were so entranced by dinner we forgot to save room for dessert, so we did not get to try one of these. The dessert options included fresh Key Lime Pie, Fresh Flan, Sopapillas, Cinnamon Ice Cream, and several other choices which now escape me. They all looked fabulous, but we settled on coffee instead. Our waitress asked us if we would like the Mexican Chocolate coffee in leiu of dessert, so we agreed. What a fabulous choice! It was made with real blocks of Mexican Chocolate grated in, giving it a unique cinnamon/chocolate flavor, and presented with a dollop of fresh cream on top. A perfect end to the meal. When our waitress brought our coffee to us, we waylaid her long enough to ask about the restaurant. Apparently, Jalapenos has been quietly doing a booming business in its little storefront for well over ten years, and our waitress had worked there for ten years as well. I would consider this an overlooked Gloucester treasure.
Jalapenos Authentic Mexican Restaurant is located on Main Street in Gloucester. It is worth the eternal hunt for parking in the downtown area to go and have dinner or lunch here. The prices of their dinner and lunch menus vary slightly. The dinner prices are quite reasonable, and we were able to have dinner for two, an appetizer, plus three drinks for me and three for him, for under $40.00. The ambiance is casual-intimate, although some diners do show up in dressier attire (we later discovered there was an even near the wharf later that night the fancier diners were attending). The service is efficient, fast, friendly and helpful. The drinks are made well, with a nice, even pour (not too light to taste any alcohol but not so heavy one drink leaves you needing a designated utensil operator or driver) and no mixes. The menu is varied, with regional specialties adding variety to traditional Mexican fare. They accept Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover, but not Diner's Club. There is both a smoking and a non-smoking section, as well as a bar area. The restaurant is definitely vegetarian friendly, with a small section of the menu devoted to vegetarian dishes, and a note at the bottom offering to prepare any entree without meat if desired. Would I recommend Jalapenos to my friends? Heck yes!
Update: I mention a smoking section in my review. Over the last few months, Gloucester has sadly jumped on the safety-nazi bandwagon, curbing smoking at restaurants and bars that serve children. When I last visited Jalapenos, they had temporarily eliminated the smoking area while the city dukes it out with restaurant owners throughout the area over smoking laws. I'll come back and let you know how it all shakes out.
Well, as of Jan. 2005 it has "shaken out", as it were, with the horrible "my safety overrides your personal choices and rights" bandwagon winning in Gluocester, Mass. - now a non-smoking city in a non-smoking state. Did I quit smoking? Yep, long before the law passed. Is it my "right" to make other smokers quit? Heck no! Battle on, brothers and sisters in vice. Meanwhile - no smoking section anymore at this fantastic restaurant