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Tapas and Castanets: Jalapeños Restaurant Review

Jul 30, 2015 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Tapas, castanets, and more are enjoyed at Jalapeños in Annapolis

by Rita Calvert

Jalapeños
85 Forest Drive (Forest Plaza Shopping Center), Annapolis
410-266-7580 // jalapenosonline.com

Truth be told, there’s scant hint of the exciting cuisine and cultural drama inside as you approach Jalapeños restaurant in Forest Plaza. This gem of a meeting/dining spot hides within a strip shopping center that also houses an Old Country Buffet and Dollar Tree, with Home Depot as an anchor across the way.

As we entered, just beyond the clear glass enclosed water fountain, aromas of enticing food, a line of chattering waiting diners, and the shouts and stomping of Flamenco dancers with boots and castanets hit our senses. It was Thursday evening at Jalapeños and the place was rocking! Who knew that Flamenco dancing was part of the Annapolis social scene? While shouts of “jaleo, ¡olé!, vamos ya, and, alla” filled the restaurant, Gonzalo (founder and co-owner) chuckled and let us know he would find us a table de inmediato! He also told us that this has been the regular ‘sell-out crowd’ event for the last 14 years. The performance takes place in the main dining room’s gracious cantina atmosphere with arched wall murals and dark wood tables, with a few finely upholstered chairs for your extra special guest. The setting evokes a bit more of a comfortable, yet elegant, Spanish vibe than you would find in a local Mexican cafe. A smaller adjacent room is the bar with one dramatically-tiled table for eight people plus smaller wood-topped tables. 

Once seated and with our drinks delivered—fruited red wine Sangria and a well-rounded Spanish red—we opened the Don Quixote-jacketed menu to peruse the impressive selection of dishes spanning three sun-drenched countries: Spain, Cuba, and Mexico....a most unusual combination for Annapolis. Perhaps it was the lively Flamenco dancers’ foot tapping and castanets clicking that inspired us to flirt with the possibility of Paella for our meal? We decided that the tempting Tapas menu, or “little bites,” was too alluring to pass up—even for Paella. By agreeing on a selection of them, we managed to taste many dishes from the different regions’ cuisines.

Game for an alternative to familiar fried calamari, we gave Calamares Encebollados a taste test. The tender calamari rings and tentacles were poached in a port wine sauce and served with caramelized onions. This Spanish rendition was sweet, tender, and unique…and surprising, with the purple color. Portion size was quite large with lots of sauce, but a good bit of the substance was in equal amounts of calamari and the caramelized (now purple) onions.
Gambas al Ajillo, known “Gonzalo’s Favorite Shrimp,” arrived in a brown cruet bubbling with garlic-studded olive oil sauce with dry sherry and a smattering of tomatoes. Simply perfect, the five medium-large shrimp were of high-quality, delightfully fresh, cooked perfectly, and devoured promptly.

We didn’t have far to “travel” from home with the American presentation of Mejillones Paisano (mussels). Since a good source of fresh mussels for home cooking is elusive, we were delighted by these medium-size bivalves, sautéed in white wine with predominant garlic specks, “just opened,” and plump. The portion size was abundant for a “little plate.”

Duck breast is unusual on local restaurant menus and Pato a la Levantina is an excellent treatment of a large breast, sautéed to crisp on the outside, then oven-roasted to medium rare, sliced, and served with ribbons of jicama adorning the top. Flavorful and tender, we adored the duck and crunch of jicama texture, but felt the sauce of orange liqueur reduction could have used a bit more of the liqueur influence.

Take note of the sauces, especially on many of the Tapas. Five out of the six Tapas we ordered were pooled beautifully in a signature sauce which cried out for bread to “mop up.” Our waitress obliged, offering even a second basket of warm rolls.

How can one graze through a Latin menu and not sample tacos? Taco de Cordero, to say the least, was most unique. Three excellent small corn shells cradled juicy roasted lamb cubes and sautéed red onions. I’m not a fan of the thick brittle corn tortillas, but these were paper thin and had a genuine corn flavor. The tiny side cruet sported a spicy dipping sauce.

Full as we were, the sea scallops have been rumored to be a winner. We just had to make space! The entree, Vieras Salteadas, consisted of five very large sea scallops, sautéed with sherry, basil, and fish stock, then finished with heavy cream. This same decadent sauce enrobed the large portion of risotto supporting the scallops. Having decided against Paella, we had our fill of rich creamy rice, after all.

Seafood seems to be prepared with a skilled hand at Jalapeños every time I’ve eaten there. One of us in the party usually orders the salmon filet during a lunch visit. It is rich, beautifully prepared, and a nice portion for the midday price. For a taste of something sweet after a large meal, we shared the Flan. The creamy custard was unique with candied orange zest in the caramelized sugar, which forms a rich sauce after the flan is baked.

How did this Annapolis restaurant enigma come about 14 years ago? The owners, Gonzalo Fernandez, originally from Asturias, Spain, and business partner, Alberto Serrano from Oxaca, Mexico, opened Jalapeños in May, 1999. The two partners, along with Chef Obed Serrano (Alberto’s brother), strive to keep traditional Spanish, Mexican, and Cuban food alive.

Interestingly, Alberto started his food career as a busboy working with Gonzalo. He moved on up to waiter and then ultimately a business partner. Gonzalo himself has close to four decades in the Annapolis restaurant business. From food and beverage director of the historic Maryland Inn to Cafe Normandie to Fergies, he has risen to fulfill the dream. When a commercial restaurant spot opened in Forest Plaza, he was asked if he had interest. Gonzalo told me it was the best decision he ever made and he loves his calling.

As Gonzalo continued to explain, the Flamenco performance is expensive to produce, so it happens every two to three months (without a cover charge, by the way). You can bet there is a stampede to get reservations even though there is no advertising for the event. Word-of-mouth or direct calls to the restaurant manage to fill the two seatings.

The owners’ consistent efforts are rewarded with a loyal following who frequent the restaurant and know, that to get a seat for Flamenco night, or even for the immensely popular happy hour, one needs to plan ahead. As we made our exit, Gonzalo mirrored the chivalry of Don Quixote by looking up from the crowd surrounding him to give us an especially warm smile and an adios salutation.

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As a food writer and stylist, photographer and blogger, and advisor to the food world, Rita Calvert has partnered in writing cookbooks and developing product lines to showcase the inspiration, art and nourishment of food. The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up! is her most recent book with co-author and farmer, Michael Heller. After owning a successful restaurant in California, she has now been an Annapolis resident for 25 years.