To most folks north of the Rio Grande, "Mexican food" conjures ground or shredded meat (usually too spicy) wrapped in a tortilla, then deep-fried, covered with cheese and kept under a broiler until the cheese becomes a molten glob. In several trips to various parts of Mexico, I've never found food that resembles this. Instead, I've had well-seasoned meat or chicken wrapped in a fresh, pliant tortilla and served with two or three fresh salsas, sliced crisp radishes and a bowl of cut-up limes. Occasionally the tacos or enchiladas are sprinkled with a smattering of crumbled queso fresco a mild, fresh cheese. The kind of a meal you find at Jalapeños in Pontiac.
To me, Jalapeños sounds a little too generic for a family-run restaurant, but that's what the Bautista family calls theirs. It's owned by Jorge Bautista, who began his restaurant career business as a dishwasher in a local joint known for its nachos.
The food is fresh. The place is spotless. The service is friendly. The prices are reasonable. The food is excellent. The shredded chicken in the tacos and enchiladas and such is the best-seasoned, best-textured, moistest there is. The carne asada marinated, grilled beef is delicious. The other meat choices include ground beef, chorizo, tripe, pork and chicharrones, which are pieces of fried pigskin. (In other words, fried footballs.) The tortilla soup is one of the best $4 meals I've had in a while.
The $6 lunch special served Monday through Friday offers a choice of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, etc., with rice and beans. The chips and three salsas red, tomatillo and avocado on each table are a good indication of the meals to follow. The menu has a low-carb section, a seafood section, a vegetarian section and a tasty cuts section that includes steaks and stews. Most of the dinners are cheaper than $10, although some of the seafood is $12.
Carolina she prefers Caroline Ontiveros, the daughter of Jorge Bautista, the founder and owner of Jalapeños in Pontiac, spoke to Metro Times the other day. Ontiveros, who has a 4-month-old daughter, her first child and her parents' first grandchild, is back working at the restaurant, which is a family affair.
Metro Times: How long have you worked at your family's restaurant?
Carolina Ontiveros: Since I was 15 nine years.
MT: Do you have any brothers and sisters who work here?
Ontiveros: Yep. My sister Tanya works next door where we have a money transfer business in the building where the restaurant was before we moved here. I also have two younger sisters who are still in school and don't work here yet, but they will.
MT: When I first met your dad, he told me that he came here from Mexico several years ago and worked his way up.
Ontiveros: My parents came here in 1976 before any of us kids were born. They came directly to Pontiac from the capital, Mexico City, and have been here ever since. They wanted to better themselves and felt that this was the place to do it.
MT: I heard somewhere that his family was in the restaurant business in Mexico City.
Ontiveros: The way he told me was that his dad used to own a small taco stand like the ones in Chicago where they have little carts where they make tacos. He learned from his dad; he used to make the tacos and handle the money.
MT: How did he start when he got here?
Ontiveros: He worked first as a dishwasher, then as a busboy at a Mexican restaurant, Trini and Carmen's. The owner thought that he was a hard worker, so he moved him up into the kitchen and then put him in as manager where he learned a lot: How to handle customers, inventory, how to speak English. He never stops learning. He always wants more. His mind is clicking.
MT: How long did he work there before he went off on his own?
Ontiveros: About eight years, until my mom told him it was time to open his own restaurant. He didn't want to, but my mom convinced him to open a tiny four-seat restaurant in the strip center across the street from where we are now. It was hard. My dad was still working at his other job. The four girls were born. My mom was the cook. I was the waitress. I'm the oldest. It was hard.
MT: Your mom didn't think that it was too risky?
Ontiveros: They had always talked about owning a restaurant like the ones in Mexicantown in Detroit. What if we had one like that! It was a dream. What if we could do it?
MT: How long did that last?
Ontiveros: Not long, only about five years.
MT: Five years is a long time to run a small place like that.
Ontiveros: Then we opened in a building next door, before building this restaurant here.
MT: As a family that has worked hard to build up a business, are you willing to help your employees better themselves?
Ontiveros: We try to teach them how to be good at what they do here. If they are willing to learn, they will have skills and knowledge to take with them to their next job or opportunity, just like my parents did.
MT: What is the next step?
Ontiveros: We have talked about opening another restaurant that maybe my sister and I would run together. But we plan to stay in Pontiac too.
MT: Let's get back to the food. Are these old family recipes?
Ontiveros: They are the dishes that my grandma made my mom for dinner, and then my mom made for us. We like them and so do our customers.
MT: The restaurant business is hard work. Would you do it again?
Ontiveros: Oh, yes. The restaurant business has been good to us. It's all about being ambitious and wanting to better yourself and make a good life for your family. I think I can speak for everybody in my family and say that we would all do it again.
MT: Your parents have worked hard to provide you and your sisters with some of the things that they didn't have as children. Have they spoiled you?
Ontiveros: No. I don't think so. When they give us something, they tell us that we deserve it. They have taught us that we must be responsible for ourselves and that if we work hard, there will be rewards.
Jalapeños is located at 806 Baldwin Rd., Pontiac; 248-454-088. Open 9 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.Jeff Broder, formerly the “Food Guy” for Metro Times, does this twice-monthly interview. Send comments to [email protected]