Dec 5, 2013

Finding Jalapeno’s by the Austin airport

Have you ever traveled for work and found yourself with some unexpected down time in the middle of nowhere?  That’s kind of how I felt the Sunday evening I arrived in Austin, Texas earlier this fall.  Yes, there are some nice hotels by Austin-Bergstrom International Airport that cater very nicely to business travelers (including the Courtyard by Marriott where I stayed), but aside from that, there’s just not a whole lot else nearby.  Fortunately, I used my commoner’s travel instincts to find a diamond it the literal rough.

For a while, things didn't look good, though.  The hotel bar wasn't going to open on Sunday, and although I had the option to purchase libations at their gift shop/news stand, I had already decided if I was going to be a lone drinker in my room, I was going to stock up at the nearby 7-11 instead. 

To make matters worse, dinner time was approaching, and the hotel’s website only listed two restaurants within walking distance – Waffle House and Subway.  I could also see a huge Denny’s sign from the hotel parking lot.  I seriously considered buying a microwave dinner at the news stand. 

But then I befriended an attractive and charming young lady wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey working the checkout counter (it was game day, so rooting for your favorite NFL team among employees was apparently encouraged).  Understanding my plight, and reading the look of boredom across my face, she enthusiastically recommended a place located in the strip mall at the closest intersection with the main highway that would take you back to the airport.    

“It’s Tex-Mex and it’s the closest place for us to go for a drink after we get off work,” she said. 

It seemed like the last, best option.  So, I walked to the strip mall, and there it was – innocuously placed in between the Subway and Starbucks – Jalapeno’s

Yes, being in a new strip mall still made me skeptical, but I figured I had little to lose at this point.  And frankly, when I walked in the dining area was entirely unimpressive and plain, but it looked very clean.  The atmosphere was very low-key.  The “American” football game was on one television, and a “real” football game was on another screen. 

At the back of the dining area I noticed a small, four-seater counter area that doubled as a bar, and since I was eating alone I might as well not take up a table for someone else. 

I was immediately greeted by the host with a smile and your standard chips and salsa. Fresh salsa – pureed cilantro, green pepper, tomato and onion in every bite.  And warm, light yet crispy chips that were the perfect complement. 

After a few bites, I noticed the hum of the frozen margarita machine in front of me.  I had to ask.  My timing was right.  It was happy hour, and house margaritas on special today – the price escapes me after so long, but I remember thinking they were dirt cheap.  And yes, I could have them on the rocks. 

Looks like a good start to me.
Now, I’m starting to get comfortable.  And the margaritas hit the spot.

My thoughts turned to dinner.  The menu at Jalapeno’s seemed somewhat limited, but I took that as a good sign that they focused on making a few things and always making them well.  I also got the endorsement of their menu from an airline stewardess who had just eaten here and had struck up a conversation with me.  Apparently, I’m not alone in craving something beyond a bland chain restaurant meal.   I chose the Chicken Monterey.

This turned out to be one of the best $9.95 entrees I've had at any Mexican restaurant in some time.  It looks fairly simple.  It tasted outstanding … especially after a couple of house margaritas. 

But the food wasn't the most amazing part of my experience at Jalapeno’s.  As I continued my conversation with the host, he asked me where I was from and why I was here.  He was taken aback when I said I was from Springfield, Ill.  He asked me if I had ever eaten at Casa Real.  Of course, I replied.  And as fate would have it, he had just recently moved to Austin from Springfield where he had been helping family at Casa Real. 

It really is a small world sometimes. 

Since I've been to Austin, I understand Jalapeno’s may have moved, and Javi's Tex-Mex is now in that location.  It may or may not be under the same ownership.  Even so, wouldn't you rather eat local and take a chance at finding a diamond in the rough like I did any day over Subway or Denny’s?  

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