By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Incorporate the name of a chili pepper into the name of a restaurant, and I’m there.
Countywide, we have places like Habaneros Mexican Food, Tacos El Poblano, Jalapeño Grill & Cantina, and Thai Pepper Cuisine.
Their menus promise tongue-burning dishes while invariably interspersed by choices tailored for touchy palates.
New to the list is Jalapeño Mexican Grill in North Park, a remake of Los Amigos Cocina by the same owner. The menu is more concise, and a small cluster of new, colorful tables sit on the front sidewalk.
The customer area inside, however, still puts you a footstep away from the kitchen, accommodating only a cramped order counter with no place to sit.
I went straight for the capsaicin with an appetizer of grilled jalapeños served in a mini cast iron skillet.
The blistered, whole peppers were intertwined with caramelized onions and cooked in soy sauce and lemon juice.
Exceptionally zesty on their own, I ripped some of them apart and spread their heat onto a few other items such as a bean and cheese burrito, which otherwise lacked flavor.
The kitchen uses canola oil instead of lard in the frijoles, and I’m guessing cumin and garlic are either omitted from the recipe or used too lightly.
The spice level jumps by about 200,000 Scoville units when applying the creamy homemade habanero-chipotle sauce to your food. Don’t be fooled by its soft bisque-like color. It’s the fiercer of two other sauces served in squeeze bottles — tangy tomatillo and a two-alarm adobo.
The deep-red adobo sauce unites with mayo, cotija cheese and Tajin seasoning in “corn in a cup.”
An employee revealed the corn is pre-cut and frozen when delivered. Although given its zippy garnishments camouflaging any packaged taste, I would have guessed it as fresh.
Summer’s pesky midday flies came out in full force when two tacos arrived to my sidewalk table, one folding in tasty carne asada and the other sporting cubes of adobada pork, which teetered on the dry side until squirting it with the adobo.
No amount of spicy sauce or pepper seeds on my plates kept them away.
So the jalapeño burrito I also ordered got wrapped to go. I was told at the counter the burrito is filled with beans, cheese and the roasted chilies.
Yet when I dove into it later at home, it was packed also with carne asada.
A mistake? If so, I didn’t mind because as any carnivore would agree, beef and jalapeños are as much a match made in heaven as chicken and lemons, lamb and mint, salmon and dill, et al.
The revised menu doesn’t leave you cross-eyed with choices. It’s sectioned into three main categories: burritos, tacos and tortas.
The latter are made with puffy bread rolls sourced from California Baking Company in Chula Vista.
Fillings vary, ranging from spicy shrimp and grilled chicken to sea bass, mixed veggies, and ham and cheese for one of the tortas.
There are also carne asada fries — with or without jalapeños — plus Tijuana-style hot dogs, which carried over from the previous menu.
From the small beverage cooler inside, you’ll find bottled house-made horchata as well as Mexican sodas and non-alcoholic sangria.
Despite no alcohol in the lineup, the eatery offers happy hour from 3 to 8 p.m. daily, when an easy five bucks buys you three tacos with your choice of fillings.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.