Sometimes it's the tiniest, most easily overlooked restaurants that offer some of the best food.
Such is the case with Taqueria los Jalapenos, which I have driven past on Greenwood Avenue for years without so much as a second glance.
The unassuming little building at the corner of Northeast Sixth Street, just north of the Juniper Swim & Fitness Center, may not look like much on the outside — or, for that matter, on the inside. But if you're a lover of traditional Mexican food, don't let that stop you from exploring further.
For 18 years, it has been the domain of owner-chef Gonzalo Morales, whom you are likely to find here with his wife, Flora, at any hour of the day.
Born and raised in the state of Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City, Morales went to work at Bend's Inn of the Seventh Mountain in the late 1980s. He later brought his skills to Scanlon's at the Athletic Club of Bend. But in 1994 he established his own restaurant, and his tenure at Taqueria los Jalapenos is matched by very few eateries in Central Oregon.
In Mexico, a “taqueria" is a taco shop. This taqueria has plenty of tacos, from fish to lengua (cow tongue); but its menu also offers a much wider range of dishes. Burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, chimichangas, fajitas and more — including breakfast burritos and margaritas on the rocks — combine in a menu of more than 80 separate plates.
On three recent visits, I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food.
It's not fancy, but it's solid, tasty fare, and the price is definitely right.
I'm always on the lookout for a good breakfast burrito, the kind that fast-food restaurants may try to fashion but often fail. Taqueria los Jalapenos has it down. Three of us descended upon the little cafe one morning. Two people ordered burritos while the third opted for chilaquiles.
For a price of just $4.95 apiece, the burritos were giant-sized meals. One of us chose bacon for a meat filling, the other piquant chorizo sausage. Otherwise, they were identical, with two scrambled eggs, Monterey Jack cheese and hash-brown potatoes. A little extra salsa — which, like everything else at the taqueria, is made from scratch — added spice.
Chilaquiles are rarely seen on the menus of Mexican restaurants, but they are popular in homes south of the border. Strips of corn tortillas are soaked in salsa, either red or green, then lightly fried until the tortillas soften. They are then topped with eggs (scrambled or fried), sour cream and cheese, and served with refried beans.
The Taqueria los Jalapenos version was delicious and filling.
Later in the day
On subsequent visits to the taqueria, my dining companion and I sampled these dishes:
Fish tacos were our menu favorite. They were made with large pieces of cod sauteed in a mildly spicy tomato-and-onion red sauce. The fish was served in a pair of flour tortillas along with chopped lettuce and tomatoes, avocado slices, pico de gallo, sour cream and lime wedges. I could order this every day and never get bored.
Combination burritos were at least as large as the breakfast burritos — that is to say, about 8 inches long and 4 inches wide. They were filled with beans (refried pinto beans or black beans), rice, cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole and a choice of meat. We chose carne asada — cubes of tender beef — and found the burrito delicious.
Carne al pastor is literally “shepherd-style meat." We ordered it as part of a combination plate with salad, refried beans and moist, Spanish-style rice. Often pulled shred-like from roasted pork, here it was presented in a generous portion, cubed and dry-roasted with a spice blend. I liked it; my companion did not.
Taco salad was a traditional presentation, a deep-fried flour tortilla bowl spread with refried beans and filled with salad greens (leaf and iceberg lettuce, along with red cabbage and carrot), shredded Jack cheese, black olives and a choice of meat — in our case, chunks of chicken. It is finished with pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole.
I was disappointed in a chile relleno, even though the baked batter was light and fluffy. The problem was too much batter and too much Jack cheese, hiding a few slices of Anaheim pepper that had been cut from the stem.
Clean and tidy
Taqueria los Jalapenos may be small and a little dark, without many windows, but it is nonetheless clean and tidy. It's clear the owners take pride in their business.
There are seats inside for 18 people, mainly at a row of built-in, lacquered-wood tables set on tile floors with throw rugs. The walls are painted moss green, with a few framed pictures and a single mural of a blue-and-gold macaw perched beside a tropical waterfall. In one corner, atop an air conditioner, an old electric radio channels a contemporary rock station. Eight tables on a bricked patio seat another 32 guests outdoors beneath Tommy Bahama umbrellas.
Orders are taken from a small counter area beside the kitchen, which is divided from the dining area by a very large menu board. On all three of my visits, service was friendly and prompt. Meals were quickly prepared and delivered with smiles to tables both inside and outside.
Even after 18 years in the same location, Gonzalo Morales wishes he had a bigger place. His eyes are open to possibilities. “It would be wonderful to double the seating," he said. Then, perhaps, the taqueria might no longer be so easy to overlook.
Victorian Cafe owner John Nolan now also operates The Hideaway Tavern on the south side of Bend. Nolan and partner Scott Knox opened Sept. 20 after remodeling the former Grovers Pub as a sports bar, with large-screen televisions, pool tables and 17 beers on tap. Burgers, barbecue and other pub food is priced $5 to $15. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. 939 S.E. Second St., Bend; 541-312-9898.
Noi Thai Cuisine opened Sept. 21 in downtown Bend's Franklin Crossing building, filling the former Typhoon! restaurant space. 550 N.W. Franklin Ave. (facing Bond Street), Suite 148, Bend; www.facebook.com/noithaicuisine, 541-647-6904.
Bill Ballard, executive chef at Bend's Broken Top Club, will attend the World Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany, today through Wednesday. Chefs from 45 countries compete in the quadrennial event. Among them, this year, is the American national youth team from the Coast Culinary Institute in Coos Bay.
“For me, it's a personal continuing education," said Ballard, who plans to recreate some Olympic meals at public and club-member dinners in November. During his week's absence, sous chefs Stan Taggart and Paul Ellis will run the kitchen at the club. Open 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 61999 Broken Top Drive, Bend; 541-383-8200, www.brokentop.com.