So many Mexican-American restaurants, in Wisconsin at least, are sprawling temples of the combo platter, warehouses that can seat 150 in front of vats of complimentary salsa. Good service in a place like that is often undercut by the scale, creating the impression that it's all polish, no intimacy.
What a relief a place like Taqueria El Jalapeño is, with that same kind of please-'em-all menu, but in a cozy little space on Midvale at the Beltline. It's small enough to feel the warmth of the service, not just see the shine.
Maybe this stems in part from El Jalapeño's small-town roots, transplanted as it has been from Marshfield. Maybe it's just a new business hoping to make a good first impression. Or maybe it's that no one could ever be unhappy with two miniature chimichangas on a big warm plate.
For the diner hung up on ethnic authenticity, chimichangas can present something of a problem. The mere word conjures images of interchangeable Mexic-ish restaurants past and present. But again, scale is all-important, and two smaller chimis per order inspire a diner to feel a little less like a glutton for the calories and exquisite golden crunch. It had been years since I'd last ordered a chimichanga, and I'm worried I may fall off the wagon.
I wouldn't advise losing sleep over perceived authenticity anyway. If the nachos taste good, order them; don't sweat where they were invented, or for whom. El Jalapeño serves food that should make you feel good, like you're in someone's home.
The mighty Molcajete El Jalapeño is testament to that. Yes, it comes in a slightly goofy rock bowl (the molcajete) shaped and painted to look like a pig. The food inside is serious: five grilled proteins (chicken, pork, shrimp, chorizo, steak), surprisingly acidic pickled carrots, cactus and cheese. The shrimp in particular were smoky and perfectly cooked. At my table, a diner who eschews carbohydrates (no beans, no rice, ¡qué vergüenza!) was fully and joyously satisfied by this dish alone, no small feat even with a $17 price tag.
Enchiladas are a Tex-Mex favorite of my wife, and the nice thing about El Jalapeño's menu is that pretty much any item that has meat in it can be made with any of the meats from the taco menu. Sticking with chicken isn't a bad idea per se — it's a little bland, but at least it isn't overcooked — but there are over a dozen filling options. Go nuts. (Make note, the red sauce is a touch tomato-heavy.)
Of course, if you really want to sample the meats on the menu, just order a bunch of tacos. The sign says "taqueria," after all, and they're as cheap as $1.75 — no more than $2.25, for shrimp or fish. Carne asada is a fine filling, but better in a torta or gordita. (Those gorditas are terrific, by the way, not fluffy but coarse and lightly sweet.) Pork pastor is rich and not particularly spicy, and the chorizo is slightly crisped and the right kind of oily.
But the lengua taco is where it's at. The tongue is cooked tender without drying out, requiring no salsa or hot sauce. That said, the hot sauce is delicious, smoky and not too hot to use liberally. This is the best lengua I've had since stumbling across the Los Agaves taco truck in Fort Atkinson back in March.
I'm not likely to return to the mojarra frita (whole fried tilapia), which was overcooked and thus rendered dry and fishy; it's true that the best tilapia is the one you don't really taste. The aforementioned shrimp would satisfy any seafood craving.
Among the things that any Mexican restaurant worth its salt should get right is a good weekend specials menu. El Jalapeño offers a handful of weekend dishes, including a magnificent plate of pork carnitas. Frizzly browned bits around the edges, slick and just a little fatty toward the inner cuts, contrasted with cool, fresh pico de gallo. Trust me, you'll use up every one of the generous portion of steaming hot corn tortillas.
The horchata is fresh, and the chips and salsa are complimentary but, brilliantly, limited to one basket. You have to pay for the rest, which serves as a reminder that you aren't there to fill up on chips. I appreciate El Jalapeño's restraint, like you're being looked out for. This kitchen wants to feed you the good stuff. Let it.
Taqueria El Jalapeño, 1318 S. Midvale Blvd., 608-709-1345, 11 am-10 pm daily, $2-$17.