It's hard to get Mexican food right. In a prior life, I even wrote a column about how it was impossible to find good Mexican cuisine in El Paso, and that's Texas - a walk across the border from Mexico. "So what hope does Chattanooga have?!" I cried to the heavens. Fortunately, the food gods were listening, and while they are a capricious lot that made Taquería Jalisco wander for years - from the Chattanooga Market to a trailer outside the now-closed Discoteca bar on Main Street - they have finally granted it a permanent home on Rossville Avenue.
IF YOU GO
Where: Taquería Jalisco, 1634 Rossville Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price range: $2 (taco)-$12 (fajita plate).
There's nothing quite as disconcerting as going to a Mexican restaurant, being handed a menu and realizing you've seen the exact same one before. This generic menu, which I am sure is part of the Set Up Your Own Mexican Restaurant Kit sold by finer restaurant suppliers, has a few variations for whatever dish the chef wants to call his own, but frankly there are only so many ways you can name grilled chicken with white cheese sauce.
The menu at Taquería Jalisco is basic and limits itself to Mexican staples, only throwing in some pupusas to compete with Salvadoran restaurant Conga down the block. Starters include guacamole ($4), tamales ($2), tostadas, gorditas and sopes (all $2.50). Like most traditional Mexican food, all these dishes are a combination of corn, cheese, beans, lettuce, a spicy sauce or pico de gallo, your choice of meat (or veggie) and some sour cream for the gringos.
Meat choices are steak, chicken, chorizo, beef tongue, pastor (marinated pork), fish, shrimp and barbacoa (braised beef). You can also include rice and beans as a side with any dish.
The tacos are served either Mexican style, which is a corn tortilla with meat, cilantro and onion, or American style, which is a flour tortilla with meat, lettuce, pico de gallo and cheese. Diners are free to mix and match, though, so feel free to throw some sour cream on that cilantro or add some jalapeños to your onions.
Main-course dishes include quesadillas ($6.50) which come with rice and beans; and sincronizadas ($6), which are similar to quesadillas but are stuffed with cheese, jalapeño, lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado and meat. Burritos ($6) come with a side of chips and are 12-inch monsters stuffed with beans, rice, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese and meat. Tortas ($6.50) are sandwiches on bolillo bread layered with lettuce, tomato, onion, jalapeño, avocado, cheese and meat. They also offer a carne asada plate ($8) with rice and beans, and fajitas ($12) with your choice of meat served with rice and beans.
There is a daily lunch special of two tacos, rice and beans for $5 and a special of the day which is an off-menu item. Menudo, a spicy pork belly soup that is as delicious as it doesn't sound, is available on Saturdays for $6.
On this particular occasion I tried the guacamole, a chicken burrito and a chorizo (spicy sausage) gordita. The guacamole is made fresh, hence the steep price compared to other fare on the menu, but was worth it. The burrito, which is kindly sliced in half, was more than I could consume in one sitting, so I saved some for later and sampled the gordita. Both were good, although I always forget I'm not that crazy about chorizo outside of breakfast.
The service was excellent, the order was taken promptly, and the food came very quickly. The server was knowledgeable, and he explained menu items to patrons with ease.
This may be a good place to mention that if you're accustomed to receiving complimentary chips and salsa with your meal, you will be disappointed. In fact, chips and salsa aren't even on the menu. This may be a holdover from when the taquería was serving food out of the trailer and may change if customers point it out.
Speaking of the trailer, if you peek around the building you will see that it still operates as the kitchen for the restaurant. The space itself can be charitably described as cozy if you stop by on a date, and as trouble if more than 15 people want to have a seat inside, but that's part of its charm. Outside seating will be available as weather permits.
As an honest-to-goodness Mexican, I can amply recommend Taquería Jalisco. I wouldn't mind if Chattanooga had an upscale Mexican restaurant with more complex dishes, but for the basics there's no beating this place.
Three quick caveats:
* Bring cash. They are still working on getting the system to accept credit and debit cards, so come prepared.
* Don't be surprised if they're out of something. Because they make everything fresh, sometimes they run out early on popular items like tamales.
* Taquería Jalisco will be closed for maintenance from Dec. 26 to Jan. 12. Do yourself a favor and check them out this weekend, then ask the food gods how they can possibly be so cruel.
Contact Luis Carrasco at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6458.