You don’t need to be Don Draper to know that “New” moves product. Most people who do not lobby the statehouse for a living (that is to say, most people with souls) are optimists at their core. Even if we’ve been hurt a hundred times before by something very similar, a few tweaks and the glimmer of possibility is often enough to get humans to buy or do something that they should know perfectly well will not turn out the way they hope. It was new. This is enough to explain, if not excuse, our decision to go to Jalapenos in the Alley for lunch.
The experience was equally unsavory for the fact that we were seated beneath a photo of an actual execution (a picture of a firing squad from what looked to be the Pancho Villa days) as it was for the fact that we were seated next to a table of cops bragging to each other about beating people up. Not the most appetizing of lunch settings to be looking at executions while hearing about police brutality.
But we were still determined to give the food a fair shake — and it was indeed terrible, perhaps even more terrible than the terrible atmosphere. People that think of Jalapenos as good Mexican food probably also think of Cinco de Mayo as an authentic Mexican holiday. To be fair, good fun can be had drinking beer on May 5. But nothing good can come out of eating the watery tomato swill that Jalapenos calls salsa.
The best thing that can be said about lunch at Jalapenos is that it doesn’t take very long. They whip the menus right at you and are ready to take your order before you have even glanced through items numbered 1 through 70, to say nothing of the 20-plus other items on the special lunch menu. They want to know what number you’re having. They don’t want you to try to pronounce it. They want the number. There are only about 100 numbers, and you need to pick a number right now. Are you ready yet?
Vegetarian items are helpfully set aside on the menu, and the pickings are slim. No, they can’t make the chile rellenos without meat because they are all pre-made. They are ready to bring them out to you now. Have you ordered yet? Have you picked a number?
Don’t get distracted by the Barbie doll wearing a bull fighter costume that has been affixed to the wall. That’s called culture. Don’t let the echo of the 1920s Mariachi music distract you from the surprising emptiness of the place during the lunch hour. That’s how you know what country your lunch recipes came from. It fulfills all of the official red-white-and-green flag criteria for Authentic USA Mexican Restaurant Incorporated. What number are you having?
Perhaps you have been slowed by the stale chips that have been slung at you, the plastic basket staring up at you like an accusation. You chose this fate. You have plugged into Jalapenos for lunch. Just as Jalapenos was plugged into an empty space in the city’s favorite economic development site — The Alley.
This restaurant used to be The Cantina. That restaurant was also terrible, famous for sticking frozen fish sticks in a tortilla and calling it a fish taco. Is this location cursed? No. People might be willing to eat lunch here even though parking is scare. But for that, the food would have to be good.
Look, nighttime might be another story. Conventioneers from out of town might not know any better. Jalapenos may do a brisk trade in watered-down sugar-syrup margaritas and Dos Equis. Those people may just be looking for something to fill the “dinner” slot in their evening agendas, just as Jalapenos throws some shredded iceberg lettuce onto your lunch plate to fill that extra space. It doesn’t matter what’s there. It’s just a thing to eat.
For people that have never had any better, this may be just fine. If someone grew up in Hayneville and had never had Mexican food before, Jalapenos might be a delightful treat on a trip to “the big city.” If they’re in for a convention and staying at the Renaissance, they may feel like they walked over and found a gem of a place to hit on Betsy from Accounting.
But we left Jalapeno’s talking about the nature of violence. Our guts were churning in hostile protest about the offense we had just committed against them. The grease was making vile claims. And the city’s favor towards The Alley as the crown jewel of downtown economic development seemed ever more like a farce: “Here’s a tax break. Look at these people drinking cheap beer. Open a business here and hire someone but please, for your own sake, don’t put any of this food in your mouth.”
Jalapenos is not the only restaurant in The Alley that sucks. But it is the only one that feels like someone’s revenge against the city where HB 56 was passed.