314 N 2nd Ave.,
La Gran Inundación del Queso de Junio 2009
Annoyingly, the TV station interrupted “Bewitched” to issue the warning. Take shelter, they said. Huge thunderstorms were on the way, threatening to drench the late spring afternoon in torrential rain and whip up enough thunder and lightning to make dogs everywhere run for cover under blankets or make cats hide in the back of closets, wide eyed. In the end, the closest thing we’d see to the flash floods that the weather girl was so hyped up about was the high flow of molten cheese threatening to overtake the shallow riverbeds of our hot dinner platters.
“Pshaw,” we said dismissively as we fired up the engine and took off for the day trip we’d been planning all week. We weren’t going to let a few dumb June showers ruin our enthusiasm for the open road. North Idaho’s green byways are gorgeous even in inclement weather, and we spent the early afternoon exploring a few we’d never explored, snapping photos of dilapidated buildings and livestock before our grumbling tummies finally got the best of us.
We were craving Mexican, so we pointed our radars toward Sandpoint’s Jalapenos, located on 2nd and Cedar in a renovated building which once housed the Elks Lodge. Since opening its doors in April 2003, it’s earned a reputation as one of the finest, most authentic Mexican restaurants in the Inland Northwest. One regular customer posted an online review calling Jalapenos “the best Mexican restaurant north of the Mexican border (in our minds anyway)” and that they always made a point of stopping on their way home to Canada where authentic Mexican cuisine is rare to nonexistent. This makes me ponder: are there Canadian restaurants in Mexico?
Ironically, at Jalapenos we managed to finally find a waterfall, something we had been searching for but could never actually find on our last trip through the area. At long last we found one tucked in the back of the Jalapenos lounge, its artifice enhanced by a dim spotlight and some pink plastic flamingoes swimming in the plunge pool. Its noisy cascade added another relaxing undertone to the festive atmosphere of the lounge where we joined a mellow handful of happy hour patrons. Colorful details abound here, including a variety of low-slung Chihuly-esque glass lighting fixtures, the large aquarium full of exotic fish, and some eye catching mosaic tiles arranged in curvy lines on tangerine adobe walls. The faux bamboo umbrellas and towering plants everywhere complete the illusion of dining al fresco at a sunny Oaxacan sidewalk cafe.
I desperately needed a margarita and our hostess, whose attitude was as vibrant as the décor, returned with a frosty blended lime specimen pronto. It wasn’t perfect, the ice wasn’t very well blended and the lime was faint, but it hit the right spot nevertheless. The Jalapenos menu is one of those where everything looks so delicious; it almost hurts to narrow it down to one thing. Pork Carnitas or Steak Ranchero? Spinach Enchlidas or Chicken Picado? The long list of combo platters created further indecisiveness. I wanted to sample a mix of things, so I went with the “Macho Combo”, a trio of a la carte items served with beans and rice. I chose Chile Relleno, Beef Tamale, and Shredded Beef Taco; the best three amigos since Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short.
It’s easy to fill up on tortilla chips if the food takes to long to arrive, especially when they’re as fresh and addictive as the ones served at Jalapenos. Thankfully, we avoided this dilemma with the swift appearance of our meals, which arrived just in time to order another margarita. Our server courteously explained the scorching drama of our oven-hot plates, but it was obvious anyway. I could literally hear a bubbling sound from the layers of yellow and white cheese that coated everything on my plate.
I carefully buried my fork deep within, first tasting the Chile Rellano, a dish that isn’t always easy to pull off. I’ve had my fair share of nasty burnt eggs in slimy sauce, but this was perfection, fluffy scrambled eggs and bold green chiles with a light touch of cream cheese. The tamale was also excellent, chunks of tended roast beef nested in a spongy corn cake with a tangy red sauce. Even the simple crunchy taco was taken to a new level, deep fried with the shredded beef inside, and topped with an unusual sweet salsa, an overstuffing of cold fresh lettuce shreds and mucho cheddar. I sampled a few bites of my friend’s Chicken Cilantro; a crispy fried outer layer brought the cilantro and spice, the tender white chicken breast brought the juicy heat, and the avocado brought the cool, creamy contrast. Magnificent.
With top-notch Mexican cuisine and service friendlier than a Tijuana madam, Jalapenos provides Sandpoint with a laid back hideout where the sun always shines year round. We sneaked out of town just as the black clouds were starting to encroach on the remaining daylight hours and the light drizzle on our windshield turned to awe-inspiring sheets of torrential rain. Honestly, we were lost so far into the depths of our fullness we could’ve driven right through Tropical Storm Matilda and not really cared.