My best dining experience of the year was this past Saturday at family-owned Hacienda Jalapenos in Oak Forest. I regret not having the vocabulary and palate to do the place justice but I'll do my best.
First good sign: although we had no reservation, seven of us were warmly greeted by one of the owners. She enthusiastically explained some of the menu items while our table was being prepared. I got the feeling that she cared about both the food and us having a good experience at her restaurant.
Second good sign: after we were seated (at a large round table by the fire)and our drinks arrived, we received a complimentary round of mini-taquitos. They were scrumptious: spicy potato and chicken drizzled with a green salsa (tomatillo?) and a sprinkling of cheese. The drinks were so-so, nothing special. My sangria was too sweet and the marguerita drinkers were satisfied but not wowed.
Next came the appetizers. We ordered two orders of guacamole, which were prepared tableside. The chips were homemade and one basket came out piping hot. Delicious. When the guacamole was gone, we asked for salsa and were presented with two versions: one brownish and the other a deep red and chunky. The red salsa was a big hit: smoky and spicy in a way that doesn't bite quickly but lingers in your mouth. Easily the best salsa I've ever had (though admittedly I'm no expert in salsa...).
We also ordered two appetizer platters and a mushroom sope. A spicy chicken sope from the appetizer platter was my favorite, though the rest of the table seemed to prefer the crabcake served with a corn salsa. The tortilla soup had a great hot-spicy kick to it.
The entrees arrived on beautiful plates specific to each dish: the scallops and clam dish on a raised square plate, the stuffed chicken dish on a triangular plate, etc. My pork chop was thick and juicy--cooked perfectly--and came with a pork rind gordita with black beans. I was overstuffed by the time the entree arrived but still ate every bite. I also couldn't help eating one of the warm corn tortillas (homemade) that came with the meals.
Third good sign: when our plates were cleared, the owner came to ask how we enjoyed our meal and talked to us about a tequila tasting they were planning. After talking to us about the qualities of different tequilas she sent us a complimentary marguarita (to share) made with a tequila she thought we would like. Very cool.
My friend from the south suburbs said the chef was the owner's 21 year old daughter. I was skeptical until--fourth good sign: the chef came out and stopped at every table in the dining room. She was indeed young and told us it was her 22nd birthday so she was leaving soon (it was about 9:30) to meet some friends at a club in the city. She was open and engaging and charmingly humble--she blushed when (after we asked) she told us that she came up with many of her recipes by experimenting.
Only one of us had dessert--some kind of flan and it wasn't anything special, though to be fair I'm not a flan fan. One of us had coffee with tequila and kahlua, which was prepared tableside by lighting the two alcohols on fire and pouring them together several times. Also a nice touch.
The tab with tip was a bit over $50 per diner and everyone had at least one drink, most of us 2-3. Great food, great atmosphere, service sometimes slow but so enthusiastic and eager to please that I have no complaint.
15426 S. Cicero Ave.
Oak Forest, IL 60452