I don't deny having visited two recently opened Mexican joints with shot-glass-half-empty expectations. I mean the local track record concerning cantinas, taquerias, and the like is abysmally predictable: sombreros on stucco walls, margaritas in fish-bowl-size glasses, chips, dips, wretched Tex-Mex fare, and, after a short period of time, adios! Plus the names of these newcomers -- Jalapeño Jax Cantina and Tequila Chicas -- suggest places where the cuisine isn't going to be much to mariachi about. Most natives know that for authentic Mexican you head south to Homestead, and for highfalutin flair it's Eduardo de San Angel in Broward; Dade has long offered only a crepuscular landscape of common combo platters.
Jalapeño Jax has apparently junked the jinx of the little house on Biscayne and 72nd, formerly home to, respectively, failed vegetarian, sushi, and kosher-Mediterranean restaurants -- and that's just in the last six weeks. Well, not quite, but Jalapeño's owners understand what the Dogma Grill guys down the road figured out years ago, which is that residents of this neighborhood like eating out but don't want to spend a whole lot of money doing so on a nightly basis. It's also true that Mexican food served in a suitable environment (read: a bar) usually proves pretty popular, and Jalapeño Jax provides the properly loose and boozy ambiance: outdoor picnic tables buffeted from Biscayne Boulevard by bushy foliage, the interior festooned with celebratory Tex-Mex embellishments that aim to make every day seem like Cinco de Mayo. And it did feel like that holiday, at least on a recent Friday night after 7 p.m., as those who'd been capitalizing on the $3 margarita-or-beer special were seizing their last discounted sips. The place was packed. The room was buzzing. The beer was cold. And so was much of the food.
Let's sit with the beer a bit longer: A superior selection of Mexican brews including Negro Modelo, Modelo Especial, Pacifico, two types of Dos Equis, and Coronita (yes, you guessed it, you agile linguist, it is a small Corona). Margaritas are stiff, the frozen ones flushed from a slushy machine. House salsa brings a mildly spiced purée, the basket of fried tortilla chips on one occasion yellow, another time brilliantly hued in the festive red, green, and white colors of Mexico. I dislike eating festively colored tortilla chips (I can do without the dye).
Jalapeo Jax Cantina
1501 Collins Ave, Miami Beach
305-531-7010. Open Monday through Thursday 4:00 p.m. to midnight, Friday through Sunday 1:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
Personal rule of thumb: When in fake Mexico, do as the fake Mexicans do. Therefore I ordered the sampler appetizer platter, which came scattered with strips of cheese quesadilla, a trio of bar snack-quality jalapeño poppers, and "taquito ranchero," a chewy corn tortilla rolled around either very dry beef or a piece of jerky. The plate included a requisite scoop of sour cream but was missing its guacamole, which was brought upon request -- fresh, spicy, very good. We also had to ask for our "choice of salsas," taken from ten types listed on the menu.
Main courses are categorized into "Tex-Mex platters," "burritos," and "specialties." We picked steak fajitas from the Tex column, the meat oversalted, oversizzled, and tossed with a sauté of red and green peppers and onions. Petite dishes of shredded cheese, sour cream, and guacamole were served on the side, along with tortillas decidedly lacking steam. Fish tacos were another Tex-Mex selection, the fried cubes of snapper in soft corn tortillas fresh enough but drenched in gloppy, mayonnaise-laden "spicy coleslaw" that wasn't at all spicy. Equally messy was the vegetable burrito, a flour tortilla stuffed with a moist mix of indistinguishably mushy ingredients -- pinto beans, rice, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, cheese, sour cream, sautéed spinach, and mushrooms. Redundant sides of rice and beans accompanied the burrito (and all main courses), the former bland and cold, the latter spicily seasoned and piping hot from the microwave.
I wasn't expecting Jalapeño Jax's cochinita pibil to resemble the Yucatec version, wherein a small pig gets marinated in achiote, wrapped in banana leaves, smoked in a pit (over coals, and perhaps the fragrant leaves of fig, guava, and wild basil), and served with precious pink pickled onions. Yet I was hoping for more than a piddling pile of pork bereft of "citrus sauce" or any garnishing onions, and too heavily dusted in musky achiote seasoning. I don't doubt the menu description as "loin of pork oven cooked for eighteen hours" -- it tasted precisely as though it had been left in the oven that long.
While Jalapeño Jax plays to "Upper Eastside" locals, Tequila Chicas Bar & Antojitos lures mostly tourists to its circular lair at the northern end of Ocean Drive in South Beach. This location might likewise be considered jinxed, prior eateries having opened and closed with the rapidity of three-card monte stands. The most recent tenant was Sushi Tepec, which means the Tequila Chicas folks had only to rid the space of a few Japanese ornaments and leave the Disneyized Mayan décor as is. A bar takes up most of the indoor dining room, with small tables lined along the curved perimeter and spilling out of open doors onto a sizable terrace (meant to be shared with Sabor across the way, but Sabor is no more). Because of its tonier address, Tequila Chicas' menus are glossier, the bartenders bustier, the music louder than at Jalapeño Jax. There is no pretension to be anything but a tequila-swilling margarita mill that serves pretty Mexican-American-style snacks, this attitude perhaps best illuminated by the menu description of chicken wings: "Not really Mexican but gotta have them!"
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The same is true of all the food here: clean, practically sterile renditions of tacos, nachos, quesadillas, and such that are not really Mexican but obligatory. Still, the fare is fresh and tasty, so rather than fret that the fajita tastes like a Philadelphia cheese steak wrap, just enjoy the shaved meat, peppers, onions, and softly melted cheese neatly rolled in a lightly crisped tortilla. A "Tex-Mex" wrap with grilled chicken likewise gratifies in a gringo way, especially when dipped into a dish of cilantro-spiked sour cream or sprinkled with pico de gallo, a sparkling minidice of peppers, tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, and lime juice. You can get both of these dips along with guacamole and pale, charmless chips for $7. A similarly priced plate of nachos packs more punch per peso, the chips blanketed with melted cheese, refried beans, jalapeños, and the two dips -- though it's safe to assume that patrons slurping Patron are not keen on comparison shopping for their antojitos.
Gulping shots of tequila brought by cute chicas in cowboy hats and short jean skirts is what Tequila Chicas is all about. The list of more than 50 spirits distilled from the blue agave plant is impressive, served either in three-quarter-ounce teasers (most $5 to $7) or ounce-plus shots ($9 to $15). Aficionados can tipple a teaser of Don Julio 1942 for $15, Patron Gran Platinum for $23, or Herradura Selección Suprema for $50 -- that's a C-note per shot, mis amigos. Margaritas are blended with all manner of splashy juices and flavorings, though the ungussied house version, with Sauza Conmemorativo Añejo, is an excellent elixir as is.
Although Tequila Chicas is a tourist draw, locals might consider visiting Monday through Thursday between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. or all day Friday, when chips, dips, nachos, and drinks are half price, including those tantalizing tequilas. Nightly beer specials and Friday's three-buck soiree make Jalapeño Jax a happy happy-hour destination too. If you want to get happy with real south-of-the-border food, however, you'll still have to sally down to the south Miami-Dade border.
Tequila Chicas, 7251 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; 305-751-8030. Open for lunch and dinner daily 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.