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Restaurant Review: Jalapeños

Nov 14, 2017 09:00AM

Big Flavors on Small Plates!

By Rita Calvert


85 Forest Plaza Drive, Annapolis • 410-266-7580

Enduringly popular, Jalapeños is a refined Spanish, Mexican, and Cuban food experience with “just short of formal” decor. The atmosphere of classic Spanish touches—dark woods, chandeliers, frescoes, curved archways, a focal point fireplace, and a scattering of Spanish style upholstered chairs­­—are dignified enough for celebrations, but folks seem to feel comfortable as a local spot and dress accordingly.

As we were seated, beverages came first. Champagne sangria was a delightful and cooling surprise for a summer day that had evolved from sultry to just plain stifling. Offered along with traditional red and white sangrias, the champagne variation was blended with very generous pours of brandy and orange liqueur with plump citrus slices for sunny color. The designer drinks are renowned and considered very fortifying according to some reviews! Make a note that you need to ask about the sangrias—and the wines—as only the clever margaritas and beers are on the menu. Jalapeños offers a changing selection of about four reds and three whites to choose from, but we were so satisfied by what we’d already read and heard, we didn’t think to ask about the current wines.  

Tapas are truly indicative of the Spanish celebratory lifestyle. In the old country, tapas are intimate, sociable bites. They’re little plates of snacks, sometimes running into meals, that you eat during hours when you happen upon a bar for a period of hanging out with a drink. Jalapeños has a plethora of tapas, we counted 39 offerings with a variety of Spanish, Mexican, and a few Cuban selections. “How can a menu this big have food this good?” we wonder. They really do a LOT so well, with such an ambitious menu, it’s quite a feat. Making the tapas choice is a challenge with so many options, including two different ceviche variations. I think this means large groups with sharing in mind, are ideal. Reading the menu is just plain fun!

Since the bar overflowed with lively conversation into the dining room, it must be known that Happy Hour is tapas heaven at Jalapeños where convivial guests linger on for hours, practicing the Spanish lifestyle of small amicable plates and lots of laughter. The bar is small and regulars know to arrive early.

The showy Ceviche Acapulco arrived as one of our starters and was delightful with the bubbly sangria. Served in an immense flared glass, it was chock full of decidedly fresh shrimp, calamari, and fish, paired beautifully with red onion in a tomato-lime dressing with a nice balance of spicy and sweet. OK, yes, we might have wished for a bit more spice and a bit less sweet, but it was delicious nonetheless. Flawless avocado slices (as well as abundant cubes within) and two triangular crackers, dusted with chili spice, adorned the colorful mix. My companion easily gave it a “5 out of 5 stars” rating for freshness, flavor, and portion size—definitely large enough to share—although it was hard to give up even a spoonful. The second tapas choice, Ensalada de Camarones Caliente appeared without as grande an entrance. However, it was the epitome of fresh with abundant very lightly wilted dressed spinach brightened by plumped raisins and surrounded by large shrimp. Finely shredded cheese topped the spinach leaves. Just one flaw: where were the pine nuts the menu description featured?

Feeling virtuous from the healthy seafood tapas, my companion focused on the many red meat entrée offerings—from pork to lamb, duck, and beef. To be sure, there were many other compelling options: seafood and fowl, a few vegetarian items, plus salads, soups, and timeless favorites like tacos, burritos, and fajitas. Another note to diners: side dishes for the entrees are not mentioned on the menu, so don’t hesitate to ask your server about the evening’s accompaniments.
The winner was Ropa Vieja, a renowned Cuban dish of shredded beef sautéed with onions, tomatoes, pimentos, garlic, and dry white wine, then served with fruity fried plantains, rice, and refried black beans. My friend was impressed by the flavorful meld of ingredients—and, happily, that the beef was just right, neither too dry, nor too oily—a common flaw in Cuban medleys. Practically family-sized, there was more than enough for one.

As seafood was my tapas selection, I also wanted to try a Spanish meat dish. Rack of lamb caught my eye as it is rarely offered on menus. There were actually two choices, one of Mexican descent with a Mole Sauce (multi-ingredient sauce including chili peppers and distinctive unsweetened chocolate) and the other, Cordero de Castilla, a Spanish style with the sauce containing piquillo chile peppers. I went with the second variation. Six moist lamb rack chops marinated with olive oil, herbs and garlic, were sliced into petite chops and topped with piquillo butter that carried the sweetness of the simmered red peppers. Fresh “mandolined” vegetables and potatoes accompany the dish but I traded the potatoes for black beans and our server was very helpful with the exchange.

We admit it: we wrestled but a moment with the nice assortment of dessert choices which were tempting but seemed a bit too much for us after the large portions of the meal. We settled on traditional flan, a popular creamy custard dessert in Spain and all over Latin America. What a nice surprise that the very pleasing rendition of this classic was dressed with an orange liqueur, a nice complement to the caramel. It may be hard not to repeat again next time.

With close to three decades in the food, media production, marketing and public relations fields, Rita has created myriad programs, events, cooking sessions on national television, the stage and The Annapolis School of Cooking. She has partnered in writing cookbooks and product lines to showcase the inspiration, art and nourishment of food. Her work has always embodied the naturally wholesome and satisfying.

In The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up, Rita supports the effort for Regenerative Agriculture while helping grillers understand what makes ‘grassfed’ different.

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