It’s a funny phenomenon when a restaurant closes only to reopen with the exact same cuisine. You know the drill: Sushi Kitchen becomes Sushi Heaven; Giuseppe’s Pizza becomes Pizza Paradise; and Pho Delight becomes Famous Pho. In such cases, it’s hard to know what to hope for. Especially, when the restaurant in question is an old stalwart, like Carlos’ Mexican Restaurant, which had been serving up tacos and refried beans in South Anchorage for 40 years.
There are two schools of thought. There’s the out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new attitude, which hopes for a total revamp with brand new décor and an updated menu. And then there’s this point-of-view: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I’ll admit to having a foot in each camp. I love to try new things and to see young businesses bloom but I’m easy prey to nostalgia. I dearly love culinary clichés like checkered tablecloths in Italian restaurants, fortune cookies in Chinese eateries, and Edith Piaf music in a French bistro.
Well, fellow retro-philes rejoice. I can report that Jalapenos Mexican Restaurant, whose second location (their first is in Eagle River) now inhabits Carlos’ old haunt, is firmly in the second camp.
Jalapenos feels fundamentally, and pleasingly, the same. The same cozy, brightly hued booths, the same low ceilinged bar, the same claw machine near the entryway, the same mariachi music piped in for ambiance. Margaritas are served in cactus-stemmed glasses. Servers wear frilly white blouses. It’s all very predictable, unpretentious and, to me, very welcoming.
I met my friend Sue for dinner at the pleasantly bustling bar. Either the locals never left, or Jalapeno’s has done a good job in attracting new ones. I began with a jalapeno-grapefruit margarita ($12), which came with pomp, circumstance, chili lime salt on the rim and an entire jalapeno pepper perched on the side of the glass. We munched a few chips and perused the menu. It’s an imposing tome of Mexico’s greatest hits.
We began with a shared plate of mini asada tacos ($12.99) which come five to a plate. I loved the filling of tender, well-seasoned flank steak with just a simple sprinkle of diced red onion and cilantro. However, the tortillas were extremely greasy (and I’m not afraid of a little grease). When we picked the tacos up there was a slick of oil on the skillet beneath. So we scooped out the delicious filling and ignored the shells. This strikes me as an easy fix in the kitchen and I’ll keep my fingers crossed because I would happily order these again.
Next we shared the mixta fajitas ($23.99). This was a generous portion of sautéed shrimp, beef, and chicken served on a bed of the sliced white onions and an array of colorful bell peppers. The vegetables are a perfect tender-crisp. A separate plate of Mexican rice, refried beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream rounded out the meal and the dish, even shared, proved to be too much for us. I brought the leftovers home to my husband, who turned them into an entire third meal.
I returned the following week with my husband for a last-minute date night. We ordered house margaritas and shared the “Fiesta Platter” ($15.99), which features taquitos, flautas, quesadillas, nachos and chicken wings. It arrived suspiciously quickly -- as in, too quickly for anything to have been cooked to order. It’s a generous plate of food and would have completely sufficed as an entire dinner but it was … unmemorable at best. The triangles of quesadilla felt redundant sitting next to the mound of nachos, and I couldn’t always tell what I was eating. Is this a taquito? Or a flauta? As a garden-variety bar snack, this plate was fine but roughly on a par with what you can find in most sports bars.
My husband was disappointed with his entrée of tamales ($14.99). He’s never met a form of cornmeal that he didn’t like, and he’s from a part of California where tamales are a staple, but he found the ones served here to be dry.
I had to concur. My combination platter, the “Mucho Bueno” ($16.99), featured a beef tamale that was also dry. The filling, too, was slightly bitter as if raw spices hadn’t been properly cooked out. The plus side of my plate was the tasty, if not exactly ground-breaking beef taco (served gringo style with ground beef). I was also a fan of the (not-so) mini chicken chimichanga, which was crispy outside, moist inside and smothered in a smoky, slightly creamy sauce.
At its best, the food at Jalapenos is familiar and comforting. At its worst, it’s lackluster. I’d be happy to see the behemoth menu undergo some editing and let the kitchen focus on its strengths. I could eat that carne asada any day and would happily scarf down another chimichanga. The menu might be a judicious place to say out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new.
In the meantime, there’s a lot to appreciate about Jalapenos: its old school, unpretentious charm; warm, convivial service with a family-run-feel; and hefty margaritas will keep this “local” on my radar. Those things aren’t broke and I hope they never fix them.
Jalapenos Mexican Restaurant (South Anchorage)
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
11401 Old Seward Highway