Jalapeno Mexican Grill in New Tampa works hard to separate itself from the chains that have established themselves as the definition of Mexican fare in America.
Chef-owner Miguel Espinosa has largely succeeded. It's evident by the time the first dish arrives that care and attention has been paid to the presentation of the food and ambiance of the surroundings.
The food consists of fresh ingredients cooked to order, plated with care and served with friendly service. And there's value there. Four adults can have a fine night out for around $100.
The restaurant opened in 2011 in the end unit of the strip center on Bruce B. Downs that also houses Mr. Dunderbak's. Inside, the walls are spice-colored, with wall-mounted televisions broadcasting sports.
The crowd was a mix of families and young couples. The feel is more upscale than fast casual – while they use paper napkins, some thought has gone into presentation and professional service.
And we were a bit of a nuisance, arriving on a Saturday at 7 p.m. (they don't take reservations) and asking for a table for seven. They managed it quickly by pushing two tables together. The restaurant was about three-quarters full and had a lively buzz.
If you glean nothing else from this article, understand you are doing yourself a grave disservice if you do not try the Guacamole en Molcajete, made tableside by your server with mortar and pestle. The result is a fresh blend of ripe Haas avocados and your choice of tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeno and lime juice, served in a heavy lava rock bowl. It's good on a chip, with your main dish, with everything.
While different in many ways, Jalapeno's does serve up the complimentary, generous portions of chips (warm) and salsa (a bit thin and heavy on the garlic). Other appetizers include nachos available with chicken and or steak.
The menu offers a variety of small plates and entrees. All entrees are served with fresh homemade corn tortillas.
Our favorite entrée was the Carnitas, featuring bite-size pieces of melt in your mouth pork served with tomatillo-avocado salsa and a pico de gallo. The moist and savory pork married well with the fresh and bright flavors of the sides.
For a spicier dish, the Camarones a la Diabla features more than a half dozen large shrimp sautéed in a cream-chipotle sauce served over pasta. The tail-on shrimp were cooked perfectly, firm but not chewy, and the linguini was al dente.
For a tamer selection, the chicken enchiladas topped with a creamy white cheese and green salsa offer a mild, comfort food dining experience. Another safe choice for the less adventurous palate is the fajitas. Chicken, beef or shrimp is seasoned and sautéed with green and red peppers, onions and mushrooms and come with a side of flour tortillas for serving.
For a lighter dish, we recommend the Tostadas de Ceviche. Two crispy fried corn tortillas came topped with guacamole, shrimp ceviche, baby arugula and queso fresco. The tang of the citrus dressed shrimp combined well with the spicy arugula and mild white cheese. It was enough to eat with a fork, or the chips stayed crispy enough to eat as a tostado.
A kid's menu is available with linguini, chicken tenders and fries, taquitos and non-spicy tortilla soup.
For dessert we had a creamy Flan de la Casa. Made by a member of Espinosa's family, it had a nice firm custard and delicate caramelized sauce. The Plantains Foster was a flavorful twist on the New Orleans staple Bananas Foster, with four deep-fried plantain slices served with a brown sugar sauce with vanilla bean ice cream.
Jalapeno Mexican Grill
Bottom Line: Authentic Mexican cuisine in bustling New Tampa location.
Where: 14913 Bruce B Downs Blvd., Tampa, FL 33617
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Children's Menu: Yes
Alcohol: Wine and beer
Wheelchair Access: Yes
Price: Dinner entrees range from $9.95 to $12.95
Call: (813) 977-0800