Sunday, March 16, 2008

Jalapeno’s - Guest Review

Eating Well in the Boonies


by Nancy Moser, author of Solemnly Swear

When we moved to Overland Park, Kansas seventeen years ago—a southern suburb of Kansas City—Jalapeno’s Mexican restaurant was in the boonies, in the little burb of Stanley (since absorbed by the city). I’ve no idea who “Stanley” was that earned him the honor of having a blip on a map named after him, but I’ve always thought it was an odd name for a town. I mean, no matter what the size of my ego, I would never want a town named “Nancy”. [Ed: Hey, this blog is based on a town in Texas called Fred, so why not Stanley? Or Nancy for that matter? Although the editor does have his doubts about a Mexican restaurant in Kansas.]

I digress . . . First, I’ll give you the bad news. Jalapeno’s is not pretty on the outside. It’s in a nondescript strip mall behind a gas station, sharing space with a hardware store, a judo school, a liquor store, a candy store, a yard store . . . The good news is that we ignored all that and tried it. It soon became our family’s favorite Friday evening hangout. I believe the Moser idiom “Feed Mom at five” (me, being Mom) was created because by Friday I was ready to eat at Jalapeno’s as early as possible.

As you come inside, the restaurant makes you forget strip mall. It’s simply decorated and not kitschy, and has framed polo-shirts in the waiting area, autographed by famous patrons such as locals Tom Watson and George Brett, among others. That they haven’t asked me to sign anything is their loss, or perhaps their wisdom. People waiting for a table don’t need to have their mind twisted with the question: “And who’s Nancy Moser?” I thought of asking them to arrange a book signing there, but my family wouldn’t hear of it. They know who I am and know that eating dinner is the event at Jalapeno’s.

We prefer a booth, but through the years have sat at nearly every table—though our experience being seated at what we’ve deemed “the bathroom table” has caused my husband to stipulate “No bathroom table” when he gives them our name. The table is not in the bathroom, mind you, but clearly in the traffic pattern leading there. It’s the principle of the thing.

Diet Cokes are ordered and free refills are fully taken advantage of. Four each is the general rule—causing us to add to the aforementioned traffic pattern before we head home. There are also unlimited chips and great salsa, just spicy enough to add to our need for the Diet Cokes.

Over the years we’ve all pinpointed our favorite meals. My husband orders the chili rellenos or jalapeno dip burrito. I order the huge chimichanga stuffed with chicken and topped with either guacamole or sour cream, and the kids order taco salads. When I’m on a diet—which has never yet stopped me from going there on Friday nights—I order the grilled chicken salad, which has lettuce topped with a yummy chicken breast that’s marinated in spices I can’t quite pinpoint. No matter what we order, everyone (but my husband) tells the waiter “a side of ranch”, or even “two sides of ranch please.” If you’ve never tried it, any bite of Mexican food is made better with ranch. But our fanatic need for it has caused more than one waiter to ask, “Would you just like a pitcher of it?” Pretty much. The chips are a means to eat the ranch because we’re too proud to eat it with a spoon. Truly, it’s the best ranch dressing we’ve ever had, anywhere. We’ve asked them for their secret and were told it’s made with packets of the Original Ranch powder mix—but with double the mayo. I tried it at home. It’s not the same. But no food ever is. At least not in our home. With me cooking it. At the “ranch” point in the transaction my husband always feels the need to say, “No ranch for me” when he orders his meal. As if that makes him superior. Hmm. He’s never tried the stuff, which I honestly think is a character flaw. Yet, since we’ve been married nearly thirty-three years, I guess I’ve learned to deal with this shortcoming.

The atmosphere at Jalapeno’s (they also have two other locations) is family-oriented, with a small bar and TV that are not intrusive. There are a couple waiters who’ve been there forever, and everyone is jolly and good at what they do. The chips and Diet Cokes keep coming unbidden, which is the true test of any favorite restaurant. Plus, we usually take half our meal home for the next day. And the prices are good. $8.50 for a dinner entrĂ©e with beans and rice. And if it’s your birthday, they’ll bring you fried ice cream with a candle in it. Many a Moser birthday has been spent at Jalapeno’s—even on days other than Friday. And when our kids come home from college, this is the place they request. We’ve even got our granddaughters going here. The picture is of 9-month old Lily, after eating some rice. No ranch. Yet. My husband will not influence her in this regard.

What we like most about the place is that we know it. Isn’t that the key to a favorite? Feeling comfortable, like you’re coming home.

But actually it’s better than home because the cooking’s better. And the service.

No wonder I don’t get any tips.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Lincoln Perk - Guest Review

Hot coffee where you really need it


by Deborah Raney, author of Leaving November

Half an hour past Wichita, Kansas, just off I-35's Exit 40, sits a great little coffee shop. Lincoln Perk, at the edge of the small college town of Hesston, is as likely to host a chatty group of Holdeman Mennonite women sipping coffee blenders in their plain, home-sewn dresses and black headcoverings, as it is bleary-eyed coeds in cut-offs and flip-flops, ordering espressos while they cram for finals at the town's two-year Mennonite college. Retired couples meet to visit over morning coffee, local business people stop in on their coffee break, and carloads of high school students drive through for smoothies (made with real fruit) after school.

This little coffee shop boasts all the amenities of a Starbucks - specialty coffees and teas, a comfy sofa and ottomon flanked by easy chairs, and a low coffee table trunk filled with games. Plus free wifi. (Starbucks charges for wifi.)

Besides the showcase of fabulous made from scratch pastries - plate-sized cinnamon rolls slathered in frosting, muffins, breakfast cookies and bacon and egg bierocks - Lincoln Perk also serves a light lunch with an ever-changing menu starring a variety of fresh-grilled panini sandwiches and bierocks (a German cabbage and meat-filled roll). You can see a few of the offerings on the menu.

Often on weekend nights live bands or local vocalists provide entertainment, and on at least one occasion the shop was host to a local author's book signing (that would be me!) There's a great covered, flower filled patio for those too-rare days when Kansas isn't too hot or cold or windy to be outside.

Lincoln Perk has that something extra that only a small town can offer. Everybody knows everybody at this warm coffee break spot. But if you're a stranger lured off the Interstate by the promise of an extra hot, always delicious Very Vanilla Latte (my personal favorite) you can be assured you'll be welcomed as if you were a friend.

Not only do I frequent the Lincoln Perk drive-thru for a great cuppa joe, but once a week, I spend the morning there with my laptop writing. My just released novel, Leaving November, the second of the Clayburn Novels, is set in a small-town coffee shop called Latte-dah, a place very much like Lincoln Perk. It's been a pleasure to spend Tuesday mornings hanging out with the gang at the Perk, writing from a cozy spot on the sofa, a barstool with a view to the outside, or a table by the door. I'm sure I was able to create a more authentic setting for my characters because of the time I've spent in this cozy place.

If you get a chance, stop by and say "hi" to Mary, Ana, Christy and the rest of the gang. Tell 'em Deb sent you!

[Wunderfool: Deb will be signing copies of her newest novel, Leaving November, along with her backlist books at Lincoln Perk on Tuesday, March 11 from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Come in and get a free Latte-dah mug with every two books purchased.]