The Mex Files

Two other shrimp dishes are also satisfying. Shrimp endiablados isn't quite as "devilishly" hot as I've had elsewhere in town, but it's still vigorously seasoned and multidimensionally flavorful. Crystal shrimp is more offbeat, a combination of shrimp, mushrooms, cheese, peppers and onions. And the kitchen has an interesting take on paella. This version features a mound of rice, packed with a variety of seafood.

If you're partial to fish, Acapulco Bay prepares whole and filleted rockfish in several styles. I'm partial to the huge filleted slab estilo Veracruz, freshened with onions, peppers and olives. When cooked in a bland salsa de vino, however, the fish doesn't have nearly the same oomph.

Two dishes need some sprucing up. The Seven Seas soup is well-stocked with shellfish. But the broth lacks briny energy. The crab chile relleno, meanwhile, is a dud, a flabby critter with only the barest hint of crab.

Acapulco Bay admirably fills a neglected restaurant niche. If you're looking for tasty, affordable seafood, it's a good place to drop your line.

Jalapeno Joe's Mexican Cafe, 5111 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 602-265-5551. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., seven days a week.

While I don't need all my digits to add up the number of local Mexican seafood restaurants, I'd need every one of my fingers and toes, as well as all of those in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to count the number of gringo restaurants exactly like Jalapeno Joe's.

Up-and-running since January, Jalapeno Joe's can't expect to wow anyone with novelty. If it's going to thrive, it will have to be because of quality.

Sometimes that quality is there. Sometimes it isn't.
You have to be impressed, though, with the way the place looks. The main dining room has a pair of fireplaces, tile floors and enough Mexican knickknacks to stock a Nogales tourist market. Your Midwestern relatives will get a kick out of it.

The appetizers, however, may make them squirm. Do we really need another Mexican restaurant serving out-of-the-freezer-bag jalapeno poppers? The kitchen's own appetizer efforts aren't much more distinguished. The chile con queso dip could be mistaken for cheese soup. This dip is so thin and watery that it rolled off the chips. Someone needs to rework the formula. The cutesy-sounding "Quesapilla de Joe's" is another loser, a stale, bready sopaipilla snoozily filled with cheese and coated with sauce.

On the other hand, except for the spelling, Jalapeno Joe's gets the chicken cosido (sic) exactly right. It's a wonderful soup, with big hunks of white-meat poultry and thick-cut veggies swimming in a chile-accented broth.

The main dishes are hit-or-miss. When the kitchen is on, the results can be impressive. That's certainly the case with the del mar flautas, a clever redesign of traditional fare. They're crispy tortillas, rolled and thickly stuffed with fish, then lined with an eye-catching basil cilantro sauce.

Pork picado is also deftly fashioned. Tender, diced pork is temptingly seasoned, and teamed with chiles, onions and jack cheese. Spinach enchiladas are another highlight, smoothed with a subtle white cheese sauce. The tomatillo burro, filled with hearty shredded beef, gets a lift from a vibrant tomatillo salsa. And the crisp, crunchy chimichanga pushes all the right buttons. I got the version filled with lusty red chile beef and heaped with fresh guacamole and sour cream. I wouldn't order this the night before my annual physical, but I'd eat it any other day of the year.

When the kitchen is off, however, the results can be painful. The cheese enchilada is a gloppy, tasteless mess. The mushroom enchilada is strictly one-dimensional. The tamales are way too dry, with a texture suggesting they've been sitting around for a while. The eggy chile relleno is too generic--no bite, no taste. And the Cancun shrimp plate is a disappointment: five forgettable, bacon-wrapped crustaceans that could cure insomnia.

Fajitas don't fall into the "hit" or "miss" category. They're solidly mediocre: chicken, shrimp or beef sizzled on an iron skillet, adorned with chiles, onions and tomato, and accompanied by the usual add-ons.

Jalapeno Joe's is no destination spot--there are probably a dozen restaurants in your neighborhood exactly like it. If it is in your neighborhood, well, now there are thirteen.

Acapulco Bay Co.:
Calamar frito
$7.00
Albondigas de camaron
10.00
Fish Veracruz-style
12.00

Jalapeno Joe's Mexican Cafe:
Red chile chimichanga
$6.75
Del mar flautas
8.75
Pork picado
8.95

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