What do a salesman from Texas, John Elway and a pot of New Mexican green chile have in common? They were all instrumental in convincing Jack Martinez to turn a little chile shop on Federal Boulevard into his own New Mexican eatery, Jack-n-Grill.
"I was supplementing my income by selling cars for John Elway while my wife was working at our chile shop," Martinez explains. "One day I made the mistake of bragging about how good my chile was, and this loudmouthed Texan who worked there said he knew his was way better. He was going on and on about how the chile made in Texas was superior, how nobody makes it like they do, blah, blah, blah. So I said, 'Hey, brother, you're on.' So he brought his Tex-Mex stuff in, and I brought my New Mexican green in, and the bet was to see who would eat the most of which chile. No one even touched his after they tasted a spoonful of it. My pot was empty in about a half-hour."
A week later, Elway was holding a meeting of his dealerships, Martinez remembers, and someone who'd tasted his chile told the Big Guy they should have Martinez cater the event. "One thing led to another," he says, "and pretty soon I was catering events for a bunch of different dealerships in town, even competitors. So finally I decided to get my catering license, and word got out. Pretty soon I gave up being a car salesman."
That was just one of the careers Martinez has left behind. He and his wife, Anna, spent much of the '80s selling chiles from Socorro, New Mexico, one of the hot spots for chile production; they fell in love with Colorado during one of their sales trips here. Every fall, Martinez and three of his seven brothers ran several chile roasters along Federal under the name Original Chile Brothers. When his siblings quit the business in '94, he and Anna decided they wanted to leave Albuquerque and move to Colorado for good. They opened The Chile Shop that same year.
After Martinez quit selling cars, he set up a grill just outside the store's door. When he wasn't filling catering orders, he would make food for the relatives and friends who helped out at the shop. Soon people wandering past the store started asking if they could buy a taco or burger, and once they got a taste of Martinez's green chile, they wanted to know -- and taste -- more. "People here eat the green chile that's so unique to Colorado, and they never get to taste the depth of the chiles we have in New Mexico," Martinez explains. "So I would point them toward the chiles, and before I knew it, they were telling me I should turn the place into a restaurant. So in May of 2000, I did."
Since then, Jack-n-Grill has built up a solid base of green-chile fans, most of whom know to come for an early dinner -- the place is open only until 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. over the weekend -- instead of during the super-busy lunches. Part of the place's appeal is its convivial atmosphere, made livelier by the friendly Martinez family: In addition to Jack and Anna, there's daughter Desiree, son Jack II, and Diego and Eppie, two younger sons who stop by after school. Everyone shares in the work of taking orders, cooking and busing, and they also share the tips, which are announced each time a diner puts money into the little treasure chest at the front counter near the cash register. Every few minutes, a cry of "Tip down" goes out, and family members all stop what they're doing to call out a sincere "Thank you." Even the grandchildren are regulars, and three-month-old Dezmond, ten-month-old Jack III and four-year-old Izabell can often be found at the back, eating lunch after the rush is over.
Jack-n-Grill is small and bright, with six tables, a few mirrors, and plates from New Mexico that hang on the orange, lavender and yellow walls. There's no bar, because the eatery has no liquor license; Martinez says he's applied. The kitchen is enclosed in glass, which means everyone can watch the food being made. Since everything's cooked to order, the food takes a little longer than it does at most Mexican joints -- but the result is top-quality fare at low prices.
Top-quality fare topped by an unbelievably good green chile. Martinez still makes it the same way his New Mexican grandmother did a hundred years ago. "It's so different from the stuff you get around here that's called green chile," he says.
To keep tabs on the competition, when their restaurant is closed on Monday, the Martinezes sample other green chiles around town. "Here's the thing," Martinez says. "The green chile here has its place; it comes from a different group of people from the combination of Native American Indians and true Spaniards and Mexican Indians who settled New Mexico, and so you'd expect it to have different ingredients. But to me, it's all about red chile powder and jalapeños, which is really a one-note thing."
For me, the first note of Jack-n-Grill's green chile was its searing heat, and we hung onto our tastebuds for dear life while waiting for the initial burn to simmer down. Once we could taste again, we discerned Roma tomatoes, big chunks of soft pork, a little garlic, a little onion, a little black pepper and a little bit of sugar. "The Romas are really important," Martinez says. "The starch in them thickens the chile, and it's also very healthy -- and very good for the prostate, by the way." He chuckles gleefully, then adds: "There's also the secret ingredient, which, if I tell you, then I have to hurt you. Okay, I'll tell you. It's amor."
What's not to love? In addition to the green, Martinez makes a red chile, also from New Mexican pods, which has a deep, rich, rojo color and just enough heat to wake you up. He also uses red chiles to good effect in his salsa, which includes red wine for flavor and a healthy amount of oil for a richer taste and texture. A complimentary basket of chips and salsa comes with every meal.
Almost every item on the menu offers a choice of red or green chile. While the green was our overall favorite, the red worked well with certain dishes, particularly the cheese enchilada plate. The enchiladas looked like a Mexican lasagne made of buttered corn tortillas layered with cheese and smothered with chile; the red chile added not only the right taste, but also the right color. The red wasn't right for the Frito pie, though, a New Mexican mainstay that's enjoyed a great deal of controversy over the years, since both Santa Fe and San Antonio claim ownership. The large-sized Fritos just soaked up the red, turning the generous portion to mush. But with green chile smothering the pie, this modest dish was elevated to new heights: The Fritos helped dissipate the heat, and the pork added more texture to the combination of pinto beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and lots of corn chips.
I'd stick with the green on the chiles rellenos, too. The two roasted Anaheims -- one could have been roasted a little longer, since it still had some crunch -- had been neatly packed with Mexican white cheese (a nice switch from the usual greasy orange stuff), then wrapped in what was almost a hearty egg crepe rather than the standard spongy egg batter. They came with a side of calabacitas, which technically translates to "small squash" from Spanish but on a New Mexican menu refers to a mixture of diced summer squash (here it was zucchini) with onions, garlic, tomatoes and corn. Jack-n-Grill's don't-miss corn-in-a-cup brought more corn, grilled until caramelized and then loaded with butter, lemon juice, a little bit of chile powder and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
The huge shredded-beef burrito was one of the best burritos I've ever sunk my teeth into, a flour tortilla stuffed with a mountain of salty, grill-charred beef and smothered in that great green. The green also complemented the posole, turning an otherwise too-simple pairing of hominy and pork-flavored water into a thick, dense stew. (The red, on the other hand, only thickened the liquid without adding flavor layers.) Green chile was included with most of the burgers, too. The most interesting was the hamburguesa estilo Juarez, a thick, char-grilled beef patty topped with a slice of ham, a hot dog split in half, green chile, the kitchen's salt-sparked, freshly mashed guacamole and a blob of mayo. Wow. Only slightly less likely to kill you was the Therese burger, a classic New Mexican combo of beef, bacon, cheese and more of that mean green.
Still, my favorite Jack-n-Grill dish didn't require either chile. An order of vaquero tacos -- named for the Mexican cowboys -- brought four small, soft flour tortillas slicked with butter and bearing either the succulent shredded beef or grilled chicken. Both meats arrived smothered in Martinez's super-sweet, sticky, slightly spicy barbecue sauce and topped with a spoonful of sour cream and a wedge of lime for an Old-West-meets-New-West marriage that had us licking our fingers and begging for more.
And more is coming. "I plan to open two more Jack-n-Grills by the end of the year, one north of here and one south," Martinez says. "Then we'll be able to turn even more people on to the beauty of New Mexican chiles."
Take that, Texas.
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