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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008

Going Loco for Tacos

Mexican fare for all tastes

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When  Jalapeno Loco opened in the mid-1990s, the restaurant occupied a modest spot near downtown Cudahy. It quickly proved successful, earning a solid reputation for its Mexican food and margaritas. Eight years ago, owners Hugo and Janet Saynes moved to a larger location near the airport. The bigger kitchen allowed the menu to expand considerably, including the addition of regional Mexican fare.

The restaurant boasts a year-round riot of color, with decorative handicrafts like bark paintings and Oaxacan carved animals. Around this time of year, the restaurant adds even more color. Mexico celebrates Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” on Nov. 1, and Jalapeno Loco sets up an altar for the occasion.

When it comes to the menu, the best feature is its versatility. If your idea of Mexican fare is ground-beef enchiladas and steak tacos, you’ll be satisfied. Even the sides of rice and beans are above par. If you have higher standards, there are no fewer than five different moles, all of which are very good. There is also the option of jumbo shrimp wrapped with bacon and Chihuahua cheese—a dish that can be found at many restaurants along Mexico’s Pacific coast.

Although meals include complimentary chips and salsa, the guacamole ($6.25) is worth considering. It is nothing unusual, just avocado with some tomato, onion and cilantro, but the texture is correct and the ingredients come in the proper proportion. An appetizer that can double as a meal is the special Jalapeno Loco ($9.50), with a respectable if a bit oily chorizo, a chimichanga, a flauta and four super nachos laden with ground beef and cheese.

The more knowledgeable diner will skip past these starters in search of regional Mexican fare. Look no further than the pork ribs in tomatillo salsa ($10.50). This is a platter of pork ribs with the bone in. The salsa, made of tart tomatillos with a few strips of jalapeno pepper and some fresh herbs, is the best salsa verde in these parts.

Then there are those moles. Mole coloradito con lomo de puerco ($14.25) is slices of pork loin in a complex sauce composed of two types of chiles, nuts, sesame seeds and spices. The pork can be a bit dry in spite of the delicious sauce. The best mole is the mole Oaxaqueno ($14.25), in which boneless chicken breast and chocolate result in an intense interplay of flavors. A current special that also uses this sauce is the tamales Oaxaquenos ($10.50): Two huge tamales stuffed with chicken and mole are wrapped in banana leaves before they are steamed, resulting in an authentic, unforgettable taste.

There is one special to bypass, however: the shrimp tacos ($12.50). While the filling of chopped shrimp with bacon is abundant, the mediocre flour tortillas fail. Then again, I have yet to find decent flour tortillas in this area.

Given its variety and affordable prices, Jalapeno Loco is the Mexican restaurant that everyone wants in their neighborhood. There isn’t much of a wine list, but the beer list includes a personal favorite: Bohemia. The margaritas remain as tempting as ever, too. The standard margarita ($5) has an excellent tart mix, but the gold margarita ($6.50), which uses better tequila, is worth the extra money. Do not be discouraged by how busy the restaurant can be on weekends: The kitchen is up to the task.

JALAPENO LOCO 5067 S. Howell Ave. (414) 483-8300 $$ Credit Cards: MC, VS Smoking: Yes Handicap Access: Yes

Jalepeno Loco | Photos by Don Rask

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