Another Roadside Attraction

Beating the heat: Jalapeño's owner, Naser Joudeh, knows how to keep cool.
Marc Suda/

Christ, it's hot. A zillion degrees hot, and this is the thing about Colorado that they never put in the tourist brochures. It's all mountains and deep powder in the winter ads, young ski bunnies with wind-pinked cheeks. In the summer, it's sun-dappled forest glades, cool streams, the variegated shade of Aspen stands. They don't show the heat haze rising off blacktop or parking lots going soft in the sun. They don't show strip malls -- like this ugly little sprawl of low-density commercial/industrial properties on Leetsdale twisting out toward the suburbs, the street stacked up with cars, and one of those time-and-temperature billboards reading a consistent 102 degrees. You go to New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, you expect this. You're prepared. But I'll bet there's a tourist getting off a plane right now at DIA -- coming in from Minnesota or one of those other really pale states in the upper Midwest -- who's pretty pissed off. Or he was for a few seconds, anyway. Until he caught fire.

Sitting on the six-table patio in front of the nine-year-old Jalapeño Mexican Grill, I have to drink fast, because my Tecates keep getting warm. What Jalapeño needs on days like this are ice buckets to keep the beers cold. That's my big complaint. It's not my only one, but today it's the major one. Tin Corona buckets half-full of melting ice, Cerveza Mas Fina stenciled on the side in chipped and faded red paint -- that's all I'm asking for.

Because that's as close as you're going to come to the avenida in Juárez while sitting along Leetsdale Drive in Denver.

I've been to the real Juárez a couple of times, and I really like it there. Once you get out of the gringo quarter -- past all of the thumping theme bars (signs on all the doors: No Cholos, with a picture of a pistol with a red slash through it), the dilapidated strip joints, taco stands and neon-lit farmacias selling no-scrip Viagra and benzedrine to any shmuck with a fistful of yanquis greenbacks -- the whole city has that edgy, rundown border-town feel of which I'm so enamored. The people -- most of them, at least -- are friendly and remarkably forgiving of my awful, lispy Spanish. Beers are a buck a bottle. Marlboros are seventy-five cents a pack. And if you have an iron stomach, you can eat on the street for pennies. What's not to love?

In the States, when they advertise travel to Mexico, they always show the beaches. Cancun, mostly. Tiny American college-student types in string bikinis with no tan lines, a colorful smear of neon and fire on a dark background to represent the nightlife. If they show any actual Mexicans, they are "colorful locals" dressed in "native costume," which, for some reason, is the same "native costume" they've supposedly been wearing since the 1800s, and they always seen to be dancing.

I don't remember any gay caballeros two-stepping down the streets of Juárez in serapes and sombreros. Matter of fact, the only sombreros I ever saw were perched on the sunburned heads of drunken college boys escorting staggering young girls with no tan lines around the corner to vomit in the alleys next to the theme bars in the American quarter.

The one truth in those ads is that Mexico is hot. Even in Juárez -- as north as you can get while still technically being in Mexico -- it is goddamned hot almost every day of the year, and the people who live and do business there have had to adapt. Mexican food -- even the borderlands cuisine that's a bastardization of real peasant/norteño cooking designed for speed and portability -- is made with heat in mind. It is light, balancing hot and cool, fried and fresh, and the portions are small, so you can walk away with your meal and go eat it in the shade under a tree. Can you imagine eating a big plate of spaghetti with meat sauce in 100-degree heat? Coq au vin? Me, neither. But tacos -- now there's some 100-degree food. Salty chips with salsa cruda. Churros dipped in chocolate after the sun goes down. And cheap, watery Mexican beer, ice cold.

One time in Juárez, I'd wandered about ten blocks south of the American section, done some shopping and found a bar whose three customers, as well as the bartender, were all clustered around a big TV watching Spanish soap operas, chatting languidly during the commercial breaks. I ate some free popcorn, ordered four rolled tacos (called taquitos, in their Taco Bell-ified American incarnation) and dos cervezas, por favor. It's always better to order beers two at a time: It cuts down on the trips back to the bar and causes fewer interruptions for a bartender who's into her soaps. I told this one I'd be out on the patio ("I'll be on el patio"), and pointed. She handed me two Pacificos and a dented tin bucket, half-full of ice, Cerveza Mas Fina stenciled on the side in chipped and faded red paint. I sat on the cement patio eating my tacos and drinking cold beer while I watched the sun set and listened to the high, putt-putting whine of mopeds pulling in and out of the fried-chicken delivery place next door.  

At Jalapeño Mexican Grill, I'm sitting on the patio at three in the afternoon, drinking rapidly warming Tecate, listening to the steaming squeal of the tortilla press screeching inside and sniffing the sour, acrid tang of radiator fluid from a hundred cars stuck in traffic and threatening to overheat.

And I'm eating rolled tacos. Four of them. Eating them slowly, because rolled tacos were made for this kind of heat. The kitchen -- which is clean, efficiently organized and operates in full view of the clientele lined up at the counter -- takes small, thin flour tortillas, spreads them with stringy, chewy, shredded beef, rolls 'em and fries 'em in the deep fryer. The oil in that fryer is fresh and clean, giving the tacos neither the sour edge of rancid fat (which is much more common sur de la frontera) nor the ghost-flavors of fried foods gone before. But Jalapeño also uses only marinated, pulled beef, very plainly seasoned, rather than the spicy, pepper-and-onion-studded desebrado-style meat often found in Mexican taquerias. And while that's a shame, these are still good tacos -- hot and greasy, fresh from the oil, crispy at the tips and soft in the middle, where the meat is hiding. Jalapeño smothers its rolled tacos in melted, flavorless, out-of-the-bag, traffic-cone-orange cheese -- an American innovation. For whatever reason, diners in this country feel cheated if their Mexican food doesn't come under a thick blanket of bubbling, rubbery, processed-cheese product. I've never understood it, so I simply scrape the cheese off and leave it on the side like a discarded skin, then eat the tacos while they're hot and drink my beer while it's cold.

After an hour, the streets are just as bad, and I'm still hungry. I'm not leaving until the traffic clears up, so I go back inside for a little something to tide me over. It's cooler here, although the seats are the molded plastic kind that are patently uncomfortable to any upright mammal. But I've got a book (Death in the Afternoon, good summer reading) and a pair of dark sunglasses, and most of the patio tables have big umbrellas so that my tender, pasty Irish self is pretty safe. I'm outside for the long haul.

Fish tacos are serious business. There are two ways to do them right, about a million ways to do them wrong, and Jalapeño makes the best in the city. The fish is pollock, gently robed in a batter that's fried crisp and brown but almost immediately turns soft and chewy -- a perfect textural match for the warm flour tortillas that wrap the fish. And Jalapeño serves these tacos properly, with shredded cabbage rather than lettuce (which gets limp and greasy when pressed up against the hot fish), a squeeze of lime, a few bits of ripe tomato, and a white sauce that's like a milk-thinned ranch dressing. Nothing else. Sure, you can get sour cream, but that's gross. And you can order sides of guacamole and salsa, but they'd just adulterate a simple fish taco that's perfect the way it is. Besides, the guacamole is bland, kind of sour and filled with diced tomatoes -- an unforgivable sin. And on most days, the salsa is nothing more than a plain tomato purée with a little cilantro added for color. You could make better salsa in your kitchen with a dozen tomatoes, a salt shaker and a baseball bat.

I've had the fish tacos before, so this time I go for the calamari -- squid rings, no tentacles, which is great, because I do like lots of weird stuff, but I don't like squid tentacles. While other places serve you piles of crunchy, fishy rubber bands, Jalapeño gives you a huge mound of soft and meaty rings, dusted with herbed flour and bread crumbs, lightly fried crisp on the outside and barely cooked through inside, almost meltingly tender and full of that slightly funky seafood flavor that's like licking the stones at the bottom of an aquarium. But in a good way. The calamari's served with a side of the creamy ranch sauce (unnecessary, unless you're some kinda sissy) and a couple of lime wedges -- the only proper accompaniment for calamari done right.  

Along with the calamari, I order a La Jolla fish burrito. This is a very California take on the simplicity of coastal Mex cuisine -- as big around and thick as a grown man's forearm, stuffed end-to-end with fresh and well-handled ingredients -- but much more complex than the simple fillet-salsa-tortilla wraps served on those Mexican beaches devoid of tourists. The La Jolla includes the same fish as the fish tacos -- firm-fleshed and mild, sealed inside its chewy armor -- along with rice, beans and a sweet pico de gallo that's much better than Jalapeño's weak salsa. You get a choice of black beans or pinto, but the black beans are the best way to go. They're slightly firm (never gooey) and lightly seasoned, with a clean, almost meaty taste that lends extra bulk and flavor to everything they touch.

I get this second round of food back to my table, take a bite of the burrito -- and relax. The chunks of battered fish ooze grease to keep everything well-lubricated, the tortilla is soft and warm in one hand, my beer cold in the other, and everything is right with the world. I pick at the calamari, read my book, drink my beer and watch the traffic go by. By this time next week, the weather may have changed. It'll probably be raining and cold. (Maybe it'll be snowing, who knows?) But right here and right now, the mercury is climbing, the tortilla press is screaming, and the whole street is shimmering in the haze. Enjoying a long lunch at Jalapeño Mexican Grill isn't quite like watching the sun set in Juárez, but it ain't bad. It's a nice little vacation without ever leaving home.

No matter what the weather.

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