Mexican, Spanish, Tapas
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Two Cuisines, One Verdict: Yum

By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Gonzalo Fernandez is from Spain. His business partner, Alberto Serrano, is from Mexico. Together they own a restaurant that is half-and-half, sort of.

The two men opened Jalapenos in Annapolis seven years ago. About 70 percent of the dishes at lunch are Mexican and 30 percent Spanish. At dinner, it's the opposite.

The dinner menu has just the right mix of choices. Although the Mexican dishes are good, the Spanish ones, especially the tapas, can make you almost believe you've stepped into Fernandez's native Asturias, on the northern coast of Spain.

Step inside and you're in a cantina, with terra-cotta floors and an elaborate tile wall behind the bar. A simple fountain, with water flowing between two panes of glass, marks the entrance to the dining room. There are murals on one wall, alcoves divide the space, and a wall of wine bottles frames the back. The tables are inlaid with tile, and the upholstered chairs are majestically Spanish.

Fernandez, who has been in Annapolis since 1978, said he was lured from Florida with the promise that Annapolis was a place where he could play tennis year-round. "They lied to me," he said jokingly. "The year after I came was the biggest snowstorm ever."

Over the years, he has been associated with the Treaty of Paris, Northwoods and Fergie's restaurants in the Annapolis area. He turned to his own cuisine when he and Serrano opened Jalapenos. The menu incorporates family recipes, including his grandmother's flan, an excellent version with slivers of orange in the sauce. But that's getting ahead of the game.

At Jalapenos, try the tapas. You'll have a hard time choosing from the large selection.

You could start with a soup, an authentic gazpacho, for instance. Although this summertime staple has been simplified in this country to a finely ground vegetable melange, in Spain it's an emulsion of tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar and peppers, passed through a sieve and garnished with chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumbers and croutons. That's exactly what you will find here, and it's excellent.

Serrano ham and manchego cheese are also the real thing. The moist ham, sliced with the grain -- the European way -- is draped around slices of nutty manchego (which comes from La Mancha, of Don Quixote fame) and drizzled with rich olive oil.

You could follow the beaten path and opt for fried calamari, but take the more adventurous route and choose the calamares a la plancha. The wonderfully tender rings of calamari are marinated in olive oil, garlic and herbs, seared and served with a refreshing lemon and white wine sauce.

Gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) are sauteed in olive oil, herbs, chopped tomatoes and garlic, then finished with dry sherry. Ceviche comprises shrimp, calamari and scallops marinated in a citrus sauce with olive oil, garlic and cilantro. The seafood is perfectly "cooked" by the citrus, though I'd prefer an even tangier sauce. The martini-glass portion is large enough to share, as are many of the other tapas.

Alcochofas salteadas is artichoke hearts sauteed in olive oil with slivers of Serrano ham and bits of pimento and finished with sherry. It's a rich dish that, like the gambas al ajillo , cries out for Jalapenos' dense bread so the rich and flavorful sauces don't go to waste.

There are two chorizo dishes. The simpler preparation is papas con rajas , chunks of hearty, spicy sausage sauteed and served atop potatoes and peppers . The other dish, chorizo cantimpalo , is spicier, with thin slices of sausage marinated in paprika, olive oil and garlic.

Empanadas de ternera are turnovers of puff pastry stuffed with ground veal, seasoned with Spanish paprika and pimentos and served with romesco, a garlicky tomato sauce ground into an emulsion with nuts, olive oil and vinegar. The empanadas are light and delicate.

There are many main dishes to choose from, including several paellas. Don't overlook the pork dishes, either the roast suckling pig -- which must be ordered two days ahead and for at least six people -- or the chuleta de cerdo , a grilled pork chop nicely accented with caramelized onions and a bit of honey.

Paella is probably the dish most associated with Spain, and here the rice shines -- as it should. Choose meat, seafood or a combination of meat and seafood paellas.

Among the Mexican dishes, the chips and salsa are a good start. The salsa is thick and chunky, with a bit of a kick from the peppers. Tamales del norte -- stuffed with chicken, peppers and tomatoes -- are tasty but mild. The enchiladas looked really good and are available in most of the usual combinations. My beef fajitas were greasy, and the meat didn't have much flavor.

Don't miss the flan. It's everything you dream it might be and more.