A Red-Hot Chile Pepper

Proud owner Alberto Partida recommends a cerveza
Sherri Cohen

I recently had an interesting conversation about Mexican vino with wine guru Fred Tasker of The Miami Herald. He told me that, up in the Sierra Madre mountains, a group of winemakers is beginning to turn out some very drinkable vintages. The vintners, who are of Spanish descent, have the knowledge to grow grapes, he says, and the climate in this central region of Mexico is right for it. So in the future we could start looking for Mexican wines to hit the market and thence our palates.

But note the words beginning and future. For now, most connoisseurs consider Mexican wine to be like jumbo shrimp -- an oxymoron. Even natives of the region, like Jalapeños Mexican Kitchen proprietor Alberto Partida, can sound skeptical. "We have a beer-and-wine license here," he notes, "but the wine -- well, Mexicans know how to make beer. So we carry 11 Mexican brands, such as Negra Modelo, Pacifico, Sol, Carta Blanca, and Bohemia."

Partida, whose family owns a plantation in Michoacán, a state in central Mexico, actually considers the land best for growing macadamias and cinnamon. His beliefs -- coupled with his family connections -- can be a boon to the patrons of Jalapeños. In addition to the beer, Partida imports as much as he can from Mexico (excluding fresh fish, meat, and vegetables); his relatives recently brought him 200 pounds of macadamia nuts. May immediately became macadamia month at the restaurant, with specials featuring dishes like nut-crusted snapper or mahi-mahi and chicken in a white macadamia sauce spiked with chile peppers.

The chef's specials convey the spirit of this terrific 65-seater, a neighborhood favorite. Located in a typical South Florida strip mall in Plantation, the crowded, narrow storefront has sand-color walls and a busy open kitchen that takes up much of the room. Partida was a chef at this restaurant, formerly known as Cancun Grill, since its inception. He then managed the place starting in 1996, and his commitment to his work was so obvious that the former owner (Cancun Grill Inc., which also operates a Cancun Grill in Miami Lakes) allowed him to buy the eatery. He renamed it only a few weeks ago.

Now the 29-year-old Partida, who was born into his father's restaurant business back in San José, Michoacán, can finally do things his way. That way involves directing a legion of servers who work together on tables -- we had so many attendants that I was confused about from whom to order the next glass of sangria -- but all the food showed up as ordered and in a timely fashion. His method also includes soothing disgruntled patrons who might have to wait for a table, accommodating hordes of suburban children, and being at his restaurant from 6 a.m. till 10 p.m. every day. As for the chef's specials, Partida intends to update the regular menu yearly by adding the monthly items that worked and discarding dishes that didn't sell well.

I doubt he'll be including the pickled-pork-skin tostada, an appetizer we gleaned one night from the chef's menu. We couldn't fault the combination of crisp corn tortillas, crumbled cotija cheese, shredded lettuce, and pickled red onions; the tart and tangy flavors, not to mention the combination of textures, were wonderfully intriguing. But I fear pork skin is a hard sell even in the South, where fried rinds are a treasured snack food. This particular type of pork skin, marinated in vinegar until it turned vaguely pink, was fork-tender, yet its rubbery appearance would surely turn off the unadventurous.

Lovers of the semifamiliar can try staples from the permanent menu, like the sopa Azteca, a crock of chicken stock rich with ancho chiles, shredded chicken, avocado slices, Monterey jack cheese, and tortilla strips that's not always easy to find in stateside Mexican restaurants. This thick and flavorful soup could have used some piquancy, which the anchos did not supply, but spice-shy Anglos won't have a quibble. The said tame customers can also start with one of four different versions of nachos, or the queso fundido. Imagine the latter: succulent hunks of skirt steak or chicken sautéed with poblano and bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Then take all those juicy tidbits and blanket them with melted jack cheese. Accompany the steaming platter with fresh flour tortillas and zingy tomatillo sauce, and you've got yourself a first course that's as filling as a meal.

Don't be bashful about beef here; Jalapeños grills up some of the finest skirt steak I've had in some time. You can order it in any number of ways, from ground-beef taco salads to more exotic dishes like the sabana en b-b-q, an eight-ounce grilled palomilla steak that's glazed with homemade tamarind barbecue sauce. Even a dish as common as beef fajitas -- a platter of fragrant sizzling meat surrounded by a mound of onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, sour cream, chunky guacamole, and lime-zested salsa fresca -- sets the standard for other eateries to follow. Ditto the burrito de barbacoa, an overstuffed combo of shredded steak, charro beans, Mexican rice, and cheese, all soaked with a zippy roasted-green-tomatillo sauce and smothered with sour cream, guacamole, and salsa fresca. Pure steak lovers, however, will be most entranced by the supple carne Tampiqueña, a marinated skirt steak doused with mild poblano sauce and accompanied by a cheese enchilada.

The extensive menu yields plenty of crowd pleasers like quesadillas, chimichangas, and tacos -- and don't get me wrong; these items are quite good, all made with fresh ingredients and cooked on the spot, since Partida doesn't believe in precooking. In fact he won't even hold over the smooth refried beans or steamy Mexican rice from one meal to the next. Still, I found the most interesting dishes in the fish and chicken categories. Chicken Annita was a plump grilled breast topped with a potent tequila-mushroom sauce, and the fish guaycura was a beautiful fillet of mahi-mahi. I was disappointed in the second dish because a salsa billed as containing corn and peaches displayed evidence of neither, and the fish itself had been overfried. Once I peeled the browned coating away, though, the fish was moist and generously flavored enough to be enjoyed plain.

When it comes to dessert, an area where many Mexican restaurants fall short, there's no room for disappointment. In fact there's not much room for anything. All the sweets are oversize and meant to be shared -- it even says so on the menu. The fried ice cream looked to be a half gallon, battered and briefly deep-fried, then sauced with caramel and fudge and loaded with whipped cream. As for the ice cream itself, Partida imports the chocolate from Mexico (where else?) and whips up the chocolate-chip flavor in the restaurant. If you've ever wondered, as I have, how fried ice cream could have come to epitomize Mexican desserts, Jalapeños' version will make you understand. Indeed the eatery is a lesson in a wide swath of Mexican cuisine, from home-style to upscale, with imported beers to wash it down. The only thing missing is that very drinkable Mexican wine.

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