The original Jalapeno's Mexican Cuisine, on New Circle Road, remains among the most colorful, albeit dimly lit, fiesta atmospheres in town. It's almost like being inside a mural, with lots of splashy sensory overload. And the menu, unlike its numerous successors, stretches its range a bit beyond Tex-Mex, broadening the palate and making for a more interesting dining experience.
There are also some attractive touches in presentation.
For instance, when you order a shot of tequila, they bring it in a coupe glass with a slice of lime. Pretty and festive. In addition, the guacamole — rich with avocado, scented with onion and bright with cilantro — arrives not in a lackluster white cup but on a lettuce leaf inside a three-legged stone molcajete ($4.75).
Another pleasant detail is chips that are nice and toasty. Jalapeno's salsa picante is a fine-textured green purée of tomatillos, chili peppers and cilantro.
Soups are delicious. Try the simple, sweet sopa de elote ($3.50), a light milky brew made with corn, missing only the advertised avocado on my visit. I don't recall seeing this on other Lexington menus. The hearty caldo tlalpeño is a spicy chicken soup with big chunks of avocado and chicken breast, and a squirt of lime ($3.50 for a “cup,” which would easily feed two). It would probably cure a cold but is best appreciated when you're well.
Some entrees further reflect the pan-Mexican sensibility of Jalapeno's.
The Yucatan fuses with El Norte in cochinita pibil ($10.50). In the authentic version, the pork is baked in a banana leaf and fragrant with orange, but here it is more like a braised pulled pork. I must say I miss the old version. What it lacks in authenticity, however, it makes up for in approachability. The presentation still comes close to the real thing, though, with sides of black beans sprinkled with white cheese, and pink pickled onion slices. The only true gaffe was the mushy Mexican rice.
Moving west, there is seafood: camarones Acapulco ($13.75). I admit I don't know what makes this dish Acapulcan, and, again, certain things were missing, notably the poblano pepper stuffing the menu promised. The “house sauce” was just a dead ringer for ordinary barbecue sauce. Nevertheless, shrimp wrapped in bacon — like this — is usually a winner. Along with the shrimp was rice, a dollop of guacamole, charro soup beans with diced pork, and a salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber with ranch dressing.
For dessert, I sampled vanilla amaretto flan, bathed in caramel ($3.50). I enjoyed the decadent flavors, even if on this visit the flan was a touch overcooked.
Jalapeno's longevity in Lexington — it opened in 1990 — confers a certain authority. Yet, to its credit, the restaurant has not rested on its laurels. It has experimented here and there, refreshing when it would be so easy to play it safe. And the very best part of dining here is when the kitchen, rather than Anglicizing Mexico's world-class cuisine, gives us glimpses of the country's style and variety.
A four-course dinner for two, including beers and margaritas but not tip, was about $64.