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Jalapeños Thriving 19 Years In

Nov 17, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo
With so many restaurants coming and going, the chance of Jalapeños celebrating its 19th birthday would seem to be slim. But this unique Spanish-Mexican eatery is thriving as it approaches two decades in business—and we wanted to know its secret. 

The answer, we learned from a conversation with Alberto Serrano (co-owner with founder Gonzalo Fernandez) and Serrano’s brother Obed (Jalapeños’s executive chef), is deceptively simple. “Be good to your customers,” says Alberto, who often greets clients by name, a courtesy also practiced by Gonzalo over the years. “And be good to your staff,” says Obed, noting that many of the restaurant’s kitchen and wait staff are long-term employees. 

Jalapeños is tucked into a corner of a small shopping center on Forest Drive. Originally, the site of a pizza joint, the restaurant has more than doubled in size over the years and underwent a dramatic makeover under the direction of Gonzalo (who plans to retire this fall) and his wife, Ellen.

Alberto, how long have you known Gonzalo, who has been in the restaurant business for 50 years?

We have been friends for many years—first at Fergie’s (now Yellow Fin), where he was the maître d,’ and I worked for him. We became partners in 1999 when he opened Jalapeños.

Chef Obed, how long have you been associated with Gonzalo?

After about eight years as a chef at the Marriott in downtown Annapolis, I became the executive chef here at Jalapeños when it opened in 1999. Because I needed to learn more about Spanish cuisine, Gonzalo took me on a trip to Madrid, where we visited a number of that city’s best restaurants, both large and small. 

Chef Obed, what struck you about the differences between Spanish and Mexican cooking? Do you mix the two traditions here at Jalapeños?

We do not mix them up, although there are similarities between the two. Both use a lot of garlic but the flavors of the two styles are based on different herbs. In Spain, the use of saffron imparts a delicate flavor as well as color to dishes like the three different paella I make here. They also use a lot of seafood—shrimp, fin fish, salmon, mussels, scallops, and calamari are all on our menu. We make three styles of paella, and they are prepared as the customer orders them.

Chef Obed, can you describe how you prepare paella?

All paella are made with traditional saffron rice. Paella Valenciana features shrimp, mussels, and clams with chicken and chorizo in a seafood stock. Paella Marinera is our seafood version and features shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, and calamari. Paella Catalana is the fanciest paella on our menu—saffron rice sautéed with vegetables, pork tenderloin, chorizo, lamb chops, and chicken flavored with brandy, and smoked paprika. 

Chef Obed, tell us about your style of Mexican cooking—it is considerably more refined than what is available in other Mexican eateries?

I grew up as one of seven children in the Mexican town of Oaxaca and became interested in cooking at an early age, watching my mother Emiliana as she cooked wonderful meals for her family. I would describe my present style as creative—I love to add my own twists to classic dishes. For instance, everyone loves my own version of guacamole and black bean soup—served in a special bowl made of lava. I enjoy cooking with hot and sweet peppers and making classic burritos, fajitas, tacos. I also like to cook with meats—rack of lamb and veal liver are popular dishes. At lunch, there is an emphasis on Mexican dishes and at dinner we lean the other way.

Alberto, Jalapeños’ primary reputation has always been as one of our town’s only Spanish restaurants and the first to embrace the tapas trend. Has that changed over the years?

The demand for tapas has only gotten stronger. Our happy hours are very popular—mostly because of our broad selection of small servings of our main entrees at reduced prices. It is a fun way to try a little of a lot of different foods, unwind with our red, white, or champagne sangria, meet new people. A lot of folks come here to socialize and entertain friends in our private dining room that seats 18–20. A few times a year we have Flamenco Evenings—always a sellout.
Then we have regulars who we consider our friends—like the couples who have been coming here since their children were little and now bring them here when they come to visit their parents. Gonzalo and I know so many of our guests by name We look forward to keeping that tradition going forward.

MEJILLONES CANTINA

Chef Omed of Jalapeños shares his original recipe for mussels, a popular item on the restaurant’s extensive tapas menu.

Ingredients
18–20 medium-size mussels
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped onions
2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
4 ounces diced fresh tomatoes
1/2 tablespoon imported smoked sweet 
Spanish paprika
1/2 jalapeño pepper
Splash of tequila
1/2 ounce white wine
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
2 ounces seafood broth

Directions
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a skillet. Add garlic and onions and sauté until golden. Add tomatoes, pepper, seafood broth, and white wine and simmer for a couple of minutes. Add mussels, tequila, paprika, and cilantro and simmer until the mussels have opened. Served with a warm dinner roll or baguette.