The Taste: Jalapeños Restaurant — Meet Gonzalo Fernandez, The Man Who “Raised The Bar”
Nov 23, 2016 09:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
By Mary Lou Baker // Photography by Tony J. Lewis
Jalapeño’s, 85 Forest Drive, Annapolis, 410-266-7580. Lunch, Mon.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner, Mon.–Sun. 4–10 p.m. Happy Hour, Sun.–Thurs. 4–7 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 4–6 p.m. Reservations suggested. Private parties welcome. Handicapped accessible. Easy parking.Gonzalo Fernandez has been a key player on the Annapolis restaurant stage for 30 years. He arrived in 1979 as the young wunderkind from Spain to become the Maryland Inn’s food and beverage director, reviving the Treaty of Paris restaurant and initiating its legendary Sunday Brunch Buffet. His personal playbook since then has many chapters—culminating in his starring role as principal of Jalapeño’s, the popular Spanish-Mexican establishment serendipitously situated in a small strip mall just off Forest Drive.
I have followed Fernandez’ career since those early days and sitting down with him for a “Taste” interview was a treat. We met mid-morning on a Thursday, and the kitchen was already alive with action to the tune of Latino rhythms on the sound system. Fernandez, a self-described “people person,” is perfect as the impresario directing his staff as well as the ideal “front-of-the-house” greeter who knows most of his regulars by name—and they, his. Ironically, I had to ask him how to spell his last name. “I never knew it,” I apologized. “Not very many do,” he replied.
Tell me about your long career in the food industry and some of the highs and lows you have experienced.My career goes back 50 years, during which time I worked at the Connaught Hotel in London, followed by three years at the Sonesta in Bermuda, then at the Omni in Atlanta. I was still a young man when I came to the Maryland Inn, working with some wonderful people like Paul Pearson and Chef Russell Brown. Russell and I teamed up in the mid-‘80s to open Northwoods in West Annapolis—a high point in my career.
You could call my departure from Northwoods a low-point, because we had taken a chance and worked hard to make our restaurant a widely-respected fine dining destination. I left there in 1992, ran a restaurant in New Market for a few years, served as the maître-d’ at Fergies (now Yellow Fin) and then for a short time at Les Folies. I opened Jalapeño’s with Alberto Serrano 17 years ago—and am still enjoying the ride.
Did you come from a family that enjoyed food and entertaining?I came from Asturias, a small town in northern Spain where my father had a tobacco farm and was the mayor. My brother still runs the farm and is now the town’s mayor. My mother was a very good cook, feeding our family of seven as well as many visitors to our home. After military service and earning a degree in hotel management at the Escuela de Hoteleria in Spain, I worked in the hotel industry in London, Bermuda, and the United States.
How would you describe your menu at Jalapeño’s? Its décor? Qualities that distinguish the restaurant?We started with a menu that was predominantly Spanish, introducing this cuisine to Annapolis and being the first to bring tapas to our patrons. Since partnering with Alberto Serrano, with his brother Obed serving as chef, the food reflects their Mexican heritage—not Tex- Mex, but authentic Mexican dishes. Now, I would say, the lunch menu is predominantly Mexican and dinner mostly Spanish. Our tacos are filled with slow-roasted pork, grilled chicken breast with a cilantro problano sauce, and spicy shrimp and nopal (cactus).
Jalapeño’s had a transformation several years ago with the addition of a waterfall at the entrance, a formal dining room with custom-made upholstered chairs from Spain whose arms match the wood of the tables, and murals by local artists Beverly Casey. My wife, Ellen, and I designed the two main dining rooms that seat 100 in total and added the 20-seat private dining room.
I have attended several celebrations in that private dining room—one of them a pig roast. Is there much demand for this kind of special menu?Yes—a number of our regular patrons like it as a way of entertaining. With several days’ notice, we can provide a spit-roasted pig or create a special menu for the host or hostess—including wines from our cellar. I personally select the wines on the list and insist on quality. Another of our special ways of entertaining are Flamenco Evenings; when a professional flamenco dancer performs on a special stage in our main dining room. We do this a few times a year and it is always a sell-out.
Can you name some of your restaurant’s favorites?We have three versions of sangria—red, white, and champagne—that our customers love. The red we make by the bucket, using a good red wine, brandy, and triple sec. It gives a little buzz, but not too much. Customers love Chef Obed’s Guacamole Oxaca—made to order with jalapeño pepper, tomato, and avocado. My favorites are the Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp) and the veal liver sautéed with onions and a cumin-butter sauce. People like the choice of our three different made-to-order paellas. Chef Obed’s salmon filet marinated in sesame oil, garlic, and beer is another good seller.
Jalapeño’s has a reputation for one of the best happy hours in town. Tell me why?We have it in the bar only, so the space fills up fast. We have a big selection of tapas—small servings from our regular menu for $6-7 each and half-priced drinks. It’s a way to taste many of our best dishes and meet interesting people.
Do you have any advice for people interested in a career in food service?First, you must have a passion for it. Second, you should realize it means very hard work and starting at ground zero to work your way up to the top—either as a chef or restaurant owner. Third, it helps to be someone who enjoys people, as I do. And never “fake it” with your clients. Be sincere with them and grateful for their business.
Fernandez shared his mother’s recipe for Gambas al Ajillo, a garlic shrimp sauté, he remembers from his childhood in Spain. “It was always my favorite—and is one of the most popular items on Jalapeño’s menu,” he says. Easy to make, with a short list of ingredients, it is appropriate for an appetizer or as an entrée when served over rice. Fernandez has added a touch of the hot pepper called Chile de árbol to spice up the original.
Recipe: Gambas al Ajillo
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 5 medium shrimp
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
- 2 tablespoons chopped tomatoes
- Dash of Chile de árbol pepper or cayenne (optional)
- 2 tablespoons white wine
- 1 tablespoon dry sherry
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Pinch of dried basil or 1 tablespoon fresh basil
- 1 tablespoon butter
Heat olive oil in sauté pan. Add garlic, tomato, basil, and optional pepper to the pan and cook briefly over medium heat until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Add shrimp, white wine, and dry sherry to the pan and sauté for about 5 minutes, turning once, until shrimp turn pink. Do not overcook. Stir in butter and turn onto a small plate to serve as an appetizer or over rice, if serving as an entrée. Fernandez recommends serving with bread to sop up the sauce. He likes Pepperidge Farm rolls.