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Thank You!

I brake for Jack-n-Grill, a temple to the taco.

Tip down!"

And the people cheer. Servers, cooks, busboys, regulars -- those in the know -- send up a loud, brief shout. Sometimes it's "Thank you!" Sometimes it's just "Yeah!" -- but they always do it. Every time someone pokes a few crumpled dollars into the little treasure box by the register with propinas and gracias written on the side in flaked white paint, someone yells "Tip down!" and they cheer.

But sometimes -- maybe every third or fifth time -- when the tip goes in and the person at the register yells "Tip down!," the shout that comes back sounds tired. The "Thank you!" seems like a reflex, delivered without much thought, as though this particular gimmick (after having been done, what, fifty times a day for the last three years?) has begun to grow tired. The waitresses don't look away from their trays. The cooks -- working like machines over the flat-tops and grills in the wide-open kitchen in back -- don't even lift their heads. I'll bet they're just mouthing it, the way some people pretend to sing hymns in church.

Hot stuff: Jack Martinez outside his Jack-n-Grill.
Mark Manger
Hot stuff: Jack Martinez outside his Jack-n-Grill.

Location Info

Map

Jack-n-Grill

2524 Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80211

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Northwest Denver

Jack-n-Grill

2630 W. Belleview Ave.
Littleton, CO 80123

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs

Details

2524 Federal Boulevard, 303-964-9544
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Closed Monday

Corn-in-a-cup: $3/$4/$5
Green chile w/pork: $2.50/$4.50
Rolled cheese enchilada: $2
Calabasitas: $3.50
Chile relleno: $3
Jaxx burger: $5
Vaquero tacos: $7.50
Shrimp tacos: $8.50
Taco combo: $6.50

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"Tip down!"

"Thank you..."

Nothing else about Jack-n-Grillis tired, though. There's no time for tired. There's no time for anything but the business of the moment -- and now that this tumble-down chile shack on Federal Boulevard has been transformed into the white-hot core of Denver's New Mexican-ex-pat universe, owner Jack Martinez would probably pay a lot of money to have an extra ten seconds added to each of those moments. Standing just outside the front doors on a warm, busy Saturday night, I watch hostesses deliver food, cooks seat tables, waitresses box to-go orders in the kitchen. Everyone working here (and most of them are Martinezes by birth or marriage) does anything that's needed, whenever it's needed, and no matter the time of day or night, there's always something that needs doing. There's chile to be made, burritos waiting to be delivered to that four-top along the wall, a phone ringing somewhere in the din that has to be answered.

"Tip down!"

"Yeah!"

Some places in this town are easy to spot, because their sheer fabulousness is visible from three blocks away -- think Adega or Lola or Sushi Den. Jack-n-Grill is not one of those places. For normal folks -- soccer moms with minivans full of kids, office workers on their way home with boxes of KFC popcorn chicken in their laps -- Jack-n-Grill is hard to see even from the stoplight on the corner because of the spindly trees out front and the big, faded Mickey's Manor sign next door. But for a certain kind of person -- someone with a nose for it and the right kind of eyes -- Jack-n-Grill would be visible from orbit. It would stand out like a neon bull's-eye on a satellite photo of the greater Denver metropolitan area, pulsing with a special radiation sensed only by those folks with green-chile Geiger counters in their stomachs.

Jack Martinez got his naturally, having been born in the Land of Enchantment and having run Socorro chiles all over the Southwest before he finally settled himself and his family in Denver and opened a restaurant (after selling cars for John Elway, catering and working the chile roaster in his off-hours). I acquired mine later in life, but got it honestly, when I spent a couple of years in Albuquerque. Chile is a way of life there: more than a passion, more like a religion. Asking a local which he prefers, red or green (or both together, called "Christmas"), is akin to asking a passerby on a busy street in Belfast which church he attends, Catholic or Protestant. Arguments over which is better -- whether discussing church or chile -- almost always end in sectarian violence.

I'm a green chile man, personally. Red is training wheels. Less hot, less raw, more refined and fiddled with, red chile is what a chemical-dependency counselor would call a "gateway drug" -- something to hook the tourists. But green is the genuine article. Comparing the two is like comparing a couple of hits off some needle-thin joint passed around at a party to mainlining heroin. To a dedicated abuser, there is no comparison. There are honest-to-Jesus Southern New Mexico green chiles roasted fresh and used whole on everything from your breakfast cereal to your midnight snack, and then there's everything else.

Jack-n-Grill's verde is the real deal. It's an old recipe, simple and blunt, and while it isn't exactly an Albuquerque green (there's pork in it, and in some neighborhoods down south, putting pork in green chile could get you shot), it's damned close. First, there's the burn -- that punishing, full-mouth heat that drives chile-heads mad. As the scorching, drop-a-shot-of-napalm burn fades, there's the flavor of char, the smoky taste of the pod's scorched skin and the earthy depth of the chile's meat. Then, like a bonus, like getting something extra, there's the unexpected sweetness. Good green always has it -- a kind of syncopated backbeat of flavor that kicks in smooth, just before the next bite. And Martinez knows good green.

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