I'd driven by Jalapeno's Grill dozens of times before I figured out that it isn't a fast food burrito stand inside the Shell station on the corner of Gekeler Street and Boise Avenue. The owners also operate a taco truck up on Federal Way, serving a selection of delicious, dirt-cheap tacos and burritos, and I've spent plenty of my couch-change on those beauties. At Jalapeno's proper, however, the selection scorches every taco truck in town while retaining a vibe so casual, I left my cumberbund and "NC" cufflinks at home.
A co-worker and I, always on the lookout for a new lunch "find," sped over to Jalapeno's during a hectic deadline day. When we walked into the tiny one-room cafe with ketchup-and-mustard-swirl-colored walls, I was immediately rapt by the dollar taco menu, which contained both safe (i.e., carne asada) and adventurous (cabeza, or miscellaneous head meat) choices. I chose something in the middle, ordering a carnitas (braised pork) and lengua (beef tongue) tacos. The carnitas were served shredded with chopped onions and cilantro, and tasted exactly how (in my gringo experience) this traditional dish should taste: tender, fatty and a little bit crunchy all at the same time. Just how Mexican chefs can balance all those flavors in a three-inch-wide tortilla for a dollar is a topic that should be studied by chefs and mathematicians alike. I'd learn Spanish to have someone explain it to me, but all my disposable income is currently tied up in the research.
As for the licker, most other small taco joints in town serve lengua in what would be a "medium dice." In this format, the meat can often get dry and a little chewy, not to mention that the taste buds are still visible, which can freak out some diners. At Jalapeno's, the tongue was shredded and moist, eliminating its anatomical familiarity to a degree that my co-worker actually felt comfortable stealing a bite. "That's actually really, really good," she said with surprise. I was also quite pleased by the large pork tamale I had for only $1.50, which tasted and smelled so fresh that I went back and got another one two days later.
My only disappointment was in the ceviche, lime-cured fish (in this case, shrimp) served with finely chopped onion, tomato, cilantro and three slices of ripe avocado on a tostada shell. While I liked that the tostada shell appeared to be freshly made, the sweet, sticky red sauce that covered this normally sour dish was a jarring departure that left me skipping the last 70 or so degrees of the circle to scoop up some of my coworker's delicious and cheesy tortilla soup.
Don't go to Jalapeno's expecting frills--or even a guaranteed seat, as it has about a dozen total seats and seems more geared to takeout than in-dining. Sipping my mango nectar and perusing a selection of financial magazines, I didn't feel like I was in a dive. Jalapeno's Grill may not be glamorous, but these people know what they're doing.
--Nicholas Collias does not know what he is doing.
Jalapeno's Grill 2, 201 W. Boise Ave. #104, 344-1404. Mon.-Sat.: 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m., closed Sunday.