Ah, the neon lights so typical of chain restaurants. They light up the snowy evening, beckoning the hungry with promises of warmth for the stomach as well as the skin. But what is this?
I see . . . flying jalapeños. To the extent that I have to wonder whether the slogan for this retaurant should be “Come for the food, stay to ponder the hidden meanings behind the lovely entryway mural.” Perhaps this is a metaphor for crossing the border into Mexico, a land of vibrant, warm colors—where peppers apparently fly free? Already, my trip to Jalapeño’s had become an interesting (and confusing) experience—and, looking back, I understand now that this moment was foreshadowing.
Neither a scrapbook nor The Matrix‘s blue pill are necessary for a trip to Jalapeño’s. It is not the experience of a lifetime, nor is it worthy of induced retrograde amnesia; it simply is. The restaurant appears to know this itself, as it hides its myriad decorations in the dim light one would associate with a typical American steakhouse, sporting a menu consciously crafted with complementary colors, but without the investment to move its imagery past an assortment of disproportionately-sized, clip-art-esque foods. As patrons walk in, they are met with a plain brick edifice, though upon walking closer the vibrant, multicolored and elaborate mural becomes visible. This mimics the interior: a variety of mostly monochromatic patterns and what appear to be cooking instruments adorn the walls, contrasting the pastel pinks, lime greens, sunny yellows, and baby blues that paint the booths and smoothly carved chairs. The woven baskets that hang from the ceiling offer an interplay of shadows on walls opposite neon signs and TVs boasting sports channels.
Some may at this point begin to sense a pattern; the restaurant doesn’t appear to know exactly what to do with itself. Though the menu offers some Mexican fare seldom-seen in the U.S., much of it appears to be similar to what you would find (sans guacamole) on any steakhouse menu. Steak, chicken, and shrimp reign supreme, with no input from any ingredient unrecognizable to the American consumer. It’s hard to piece together what the restaurant is going for: Mexican American, or American disguised as Mexican—a distinction made all the more difficult when one considers the way Mexican food has taken America by storm. I can’t say I blame Jalapeño’s for its mixing of cultures when the same thing has happened the country over; heck, salsa even “surpassed ketchup as America’s top-selling condiment back in the 1990s” (Arellano, Taco USA 9). Therefore, while they may be a tad confusing, the restaurant’s decisions do hold merit.
Despite the disparate atmosphere and selection, the food itself is impressive in its own right. The huasteca of which I partook—a dish of skirt steak, cheese, beans, and guacamole, served with tortillas so that a patron may apportion as they will—was excellently cooked and seasoned, and it was brought to the table steaming hot and smelling of a warm grill. The steak was predictably tough, as all skirt steak is, yet it had a bold and savory flavor that complemented the leanness of the meat with what I can only describe as finesse. The thick, stringy cheese required two hands to separate, and reflected golden in the dim light. The beans were served in a bowl that could be mistaken for containing soup, due to the liquid that masked them; thus, even my last bites of the beans were not dry. It was almost as if the chefs took precautions to ensure that no single shape on the plate contrasted too greatly with the others. It was, quite frankly, art on a plate.
Huasteca is itself not a common name for a entrée, as evidenced by the utter lack of useful Google results for “huasteca dish;” rather, it is likely that this dish was named for the Huasteca region of Mexico. The region comprises the area once dominated by the Huasteca Mesoamerican culture, though it is now inhabited by a variety of ethnic groups, of whom the Huastec indigenous people comprise a relatively small number (“Huasteca, The“).
Thus, not only was the meal delicious, it was also culturally significant. To quote the excellent Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, “Comida mexicana in the United States is like M. C. Escher’s Relativity, each staircase helping the climber reach a particular plateau but only to whisper promises of higher, better planes, in an endless hat dance of discovery” (Arellano 4). Likewise, this experience has been my first step on a journey of Mexican food, culture, and history, and it was definitely a pleasant starting point.
But was it enough? The portion sizes were more than satisfactory, the service was fast, the server was friendly and understanding when I took some extra time to ponder my order—all indicative of a win. Although, I wasn’t sure how to feel about the family sitting across the aisle behind me, as they celebrated a birthday in the true fashion of an Americanized Mexican restaurant: with an English rendition of the Happy Birthday song during a sombrero coronation by the staff. I have never personally been on the receiving end of the sombrero, so I cannot attest to the mental state of the person upon whom it was granted, nor can I pass judgment on whether the practice is offensive, innocently or otherwise. As described in the article “Sombreros Over the South,” “There are no debates about cultural respect or appropriation; tonight, everyone is a Mexican. That’s the magic of the sombrero—and its harm. As Mexicans have migrated to the South over the past twenty years, too many folks reduce us to a seemingly silly hat” (Arellano). But that is neither here nor there.
The online presence of Jalapeño’s is surprisingly minute. Even after traveling to the abhorred second page of the Google results, I was unable to find a website for the chain itself, nor even for the location in Lexington, KY to which I had gone. Multiple other locations for restaurants with the same name appeared, though none had the same logo of the restaurant I had visited, and so I could not even be certain whether Jalapeño’s was a restaurant chain or simply a collection of restaurants all with the same name (an option I find myself unable to rule out simply because I doubt the name “Jalapeño’s” to be a rare pick for a Mexican restaurant). Their social media presence is similarly lackluster; the Lexington location’s Facebook page featured an address, phone number, and hours of operation, along with a website and menu for the location in Gloucester, MA. There were no posts by the restaurant itself, as the page was unofficial, created by Facebook algorithms. Additionally, I was unable to find the barest hint that any other social media site might host a Jalapeño’s-run page.
The exterior and interior may comprise a Tex-Mex patchwork the likes of which only a master crossword filler might grasp, and their internet presence may be that of a particularly popular hermit, but I must say that the quality and presentation of the food speak for themselves. Furthermore, though said patchwork of cultures may seem wildly heterogenous, it is indicative of a larger cultural blending that may be summed up by—you guessed it—the illustrious Arellano: “Anyone who dismisses this reality [that America has become enthralled by Mexican food] as not indicative of something seismic in the American story is more deluded that [sic] someone who thinks refried beans are actually fried twice” (Taco USA 9). Thus, if you wish for the kind of Mexican cuisine you might locate in Mexico, there may be one or two items that you find to your liking, though I wouldn’t go in with high hopes; if instead you wish for somewhere to sit down with some friends and make conversation over steaming tortillas, this is the place for you.