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.
2524 Federal Boulevard,
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Green chile w/pork: $2.50/$4.50
Rolled cheese enchilada: $2
Chile relleno: $3
Jaxx burger: $5
Vaquero tacos: $7.50
Shrimp tacos: $8.50
Taco combo: $6.50
Nothing else about Jack-n-Grill is 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.
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.
Good things come to those who wait: Though you'll inevitably have to wait for a table at Jack-n-Grill, there's plenty to do while the minutes tick by. You can watch the cooks in the kitchen and the servers on the floor locked into their perpetual, exacting dance of orders, plates and trays. You can watch Martinez do his thing, working the room in a shirt the color of bottled sunshine and a smile that seems permanantly stapled up around his ears, shaking hands, greeting customers, dodging through the dining room like a pro running back making a broken-field dash. Me, I kill time watching the crowd and eavesdropping. I listen to a server behind me telling a table of three how the (unofficial) policy of the house is to make regulars wait for a table, bumping their names further and further down the list with sincere apologies. And wait they do -- happily. Gratefully, even. There are regulars in the crowd outside who wear looks of absolute, navel-gazing Zen calm, a look that says they'll wait forever, if need be. Of course, the waiting recently got easier. Last month, Jack-n-Grill finally acquired its long-awaited liquor license, and it's now serving cold beer and big margaritas. (It might be serving wine and other things, too, but cold beer and big margaritas are all that matter.)
On this Saturday night, just like every night I've been here, the nine tables inside and the half-dozen outside are full. I see newcomers fidgeting, wondering what the fuck is up with a 45-minute wait for Mexican food, and what if they run out of chile? But those are rookie concerns. I've never known the kitchen to run out of anything, and while I've seen a few people so annoyed by the wait that they left before getting seated, I've never seen anyone leave angry after a meal. In that way, eating at Jack-n-Grill is like a trip to Disneyland: You never remember the lines.
Even after you get a table, you'll have to wait. Orders take a while, because the kitchen makes everything (except the tortillas) by hand, and everything (excepting nothing) to order. But when they finally arrive, my tacos vaqueros are so good that I never want to eat anything else again. Four tortillas, fried in butter on the flat-top, come laid open on the plate like a taco autopsy, with all of their insides showing. Each one holds a dollop of tender, shredded beef soaked in an incredible smoky-sweet barbecue sauce so dark it's almost black; a sprinkling of diced tomatoes that pair up against the sweetness of the barbecue sauce better than peanut butter does with jelly; just enough melted cheese to weld everything together; and a dainty little curl of sour cream to top things off. There are limes on the plate, too, just as there are limes on almost every plate, because just about everything in the canon of Mexican cooking goes down better with a squeeze of lime.
The waitress comes by about 45 seconds after the plate hits the table, squeezes my arm, calls me honey and asks if everything is okay. In less than a minute, I'm already on the last bite of my third taco; my mouth is full, so I just nod, chew, try to swallow. She laughs as she walks away. She's been around. She understands.
I've got Jack-n-Grill's corn-in-a-cup on one side of my tacos -- a delicious mix of yellow kernels roasted until the sugars just start to caramelize, then tossed with butter, chile powder and a spray of anachronistic but oddly well-matched parmesan cheese -- and calabasitas (little squash, if you want to get all literal about it) on the other. And if this place hadn't already won me with its New Mexican verde and heavenly corn-in-a-cup, the calabasitas would have done it. Depending on the season, it's made with zucchini or summer squash cubed and grilled and cooked soft with corn, onions, green chile and spices. I don't even like zucchini -- hate it, as a matter of fact, just slightly less than I do celery -- but I order this every time and eat every bit.
And then, after my tacos and sides, I have more tacos. Shrimp this round, from the gulf, with diced tomato and a spoonful of smooth, silky, salty, perfect guacamole topping four more butter-grilled tortillas. I chase each little taco with a big swallow of margarita, and I only realize as I'm leaving that I did it backward. My tongue is gritty and my teeth taste like I've been sucking on a mouthful of SweeTARTS cooped up from the bottom of an aquarium. So I go back in and get an order of chips and guac for the road, and all the way home I have those chips, a box of leftovers to pick at, and the smells of chile, lime and cumin -- the fumes of my excess -- still sharp in my nose. I feel like I've been sniffing model-airplane glue all night -- guilty and sticky and a little sick, not high anymore, but a little drifty from the memory of it.
Back for a to-go lunch on a Tuesday afternoon, I spot some familiar faces in the waiting crowd. I wonder if the regulars have taken to sleeping here, camping in their cars or at the construction site out back. I order a Jaxx burger, a serious two-hander that violates all the laws of burger physics by topping a huge beef patty with guacamole, sour cream, onion, lettuce, bacon, green chile and cheese and then putting it on a laughably small bun. It's the kind of burger that should come with its own defibrillator and a paramedic to revive you halfway through. But I also order cheese enchiladas -- almost like a Mexican lasagna, with layers of cheese all rolled up inside folds of light, soft tortilla, then smothered with a near-lethal dose of green -- and a single green chile relleno à la carte. The rellenos here are the purest expression of a green chile's power, with a whole chile stuffed with mild white cheese and wrapped in a jacket of egg batter so light it's almost like a crêpe. Nothing gets in the way of the chile. The cheese is there for texture; the fluffy egg coating stops the melted cheese from dripping all over your leg if you try to eat the relleno while you drive.
Outside, there's a breeze under the big white tent; it smells like it hopped into a cab outside some driftwood bar in Ensenada and told the driver to step on it just so it could be here for this moment. It smells like sunny days and long nights, a little bit like the ocean and a lot like gummy tires meeting hot blacktop. It also smells of burlap and earth, of cumin and lime, smoke and tar, scorched chiles, propane and impatience. I can hear the rattle and pop of chiles tumbling in the roaster, the burners as loud as jet engines. Next to me, a teenage Hispanic kid is talking on his cell phone: "I swear to God, there's like a whole bunch of these white people waiting for chiles." On the other side of the packed-down front yard, a waitress is helping a group of wheelchair-bound seniors negotiate their way through the crowd.
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I like it here. There's fire and food and drama and need. I'm not a regular by any stretch, but I am a lazy man, so I'm pretty sure I could wait all day if I had to. My order actually takes only fifteen minutes, and as I pick it up, I drop a couple bucks in the treasure chest.