Tuscaloosa Restaurant Week: Jalapeño’s Mexican Grill Celebrates Generations of Service
Good Sunday morning and welcome to the first day of Tuscaloosa Restaurant Week, where we are kicking things off by celebrating decades of service and success at Jalapeño's Mexican Grill!
Each day this week, the Thread and Visit Tuscaloosa will highlight the city’s most in-demand dining locations and the hands that prepare our finest food in features published every morning.
Hungry for more? Over 30 participating eateries are also offering unique items or special discounts on their most popular orders all week long! Learn more and get connected now at TuscaloosaRestaurantWeek.com.
The American Dream
Perhaps the story of Jalapeño's and its co-owner Jheovanny Gomez is so appealing is because, at its core, it's the realization of the American Dream.
Gomez is a Colombia native who followed his then-girlfriend to the United States in 1999 and made his home here in west Alabama. Gomez told the Thread he took a job at a restaurant to pay for classes as he studied English and considered becoming a computer engineer.
He believes God had other plans for him. The job he took introduced him to businessman Wayne Grimball and his son Justin, who were impressed enough with Jheovanny that very soon, they he proposed going into business together.
They went out on a limb in 2001 and, with a team of less than six people, opened the first Jalapeño's in downtown Tuscaloosa's Temerson Square.
"After my third semester, one day, sitting in a classroom I realized, 'I don't want to do this!" and I'd already fallen in love with the restaurant business, so I walked out and I never went back," Gomez said. "Now I could never see myself behind a computer or in a cubicle -- that would ruin my life! Instead, everyday I get to talk to people, I get encouragement and confirmation that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing in life and I love it. Even though I never dreamed about having a restaurant, I know I am living the dream. I'm in the American Dream, for sure."
New Kids on the Block No More
Now Jalapeño's is open in four locations throughout Tuscaloosa County. For this interview, Gomez sat in their newest restaurant, which opened last year in Temerson Square, steps away from where the first one opened 22 years ago.
"We're sitting right here where everything started -- this was our first location, downtown Tuscaloosa, and we started with two kitchen guys, my business partner and I," Gomez said. "We were the new kids on the block, and we wanted to bring Mexican food downtown because there was none of that -- there was really only DePalma's and us in this part of town and people just immediately poured their support into us, coming to see what we were all about, which was taking regular Mexican cuisine and putting our own flair to it, always bringing out new dishes. We've never felt content to just sell the same as everybody else."
"Three years later, we outgrew the place and we wanted to do our own freestanding building and that's when we went to Northport and built a restaurant from the ground up. Now, we've been there for 18 years and thank God -- here we are in four locations!"
Gomez said the blessing of two decades of success is twofold. First, he now employs more than 115 people. As someone who entered working life in America as a busboy, creating opportunities for that many people is not lost on Gomez.
Second, Jheovanny said he and his staff have cherished watching their customers grow up. After 22 years in business, many families have seen multiple generations enjoy meals at Jalapeño's.
"That's what makes especially this place in downtown so special - the kids that we saw in high chairs and booster seats back in 2001, now they're our customers," he said. "They've been through all their different journeys, shared some of that with us here and now they're back with us again, eating great meals and drinking tequila."
Always Innovating with Master Chef Fredy Vélez
Gomez said Jalapeño's is committed to consistency, so that every bowl of their legendary Fajita Gumbo and each Burrito Verde is as good as the last, and the best way to achieve that is for the same chefs and cooks to work your kitchens for a long time.
At the same time, though, Gomez aims to innovate, to introduce Tuscaloosa to new, authentic Mexican dishes they may have never tasted before. For that, he needs a creative chef, a master with deep knowledge of the cuisine and the skills to prepare it.
Fortunately for Jheovanny, Jalapeño's and Tuscaloosa, he has the best of both worlds in employees like Master Chef Fredy Vélez, who has worked for Gomez for 12 years.
"Fredy came from Acapulco and when he arrived, he already had a lot of kitchen background," Gomez said. "His brother was working for us and when Fredy came here asking for an opportunity to work, I didn't hesitate. He jumped in right away and fit right in."
Now, Vélez uses the downtown restaurant as something of a test kitchen, where he can create experimental salsas and dishes like his pork belly tacos, when became so popular in Temerson Square that they are now available at all four Jalapeño's in town.
Vélez was working on a new take on the shrimp cocktail before our interview at the downtown restaurant.
"Through my journey working in different restaurants in Mexico, I was already making dishes like this new shrimp cocktail, but when I came here to America, I couldn't find the same entrees, tastes and flavors," Vélez said through Gomez. "So I started making them myself but always tasting and making sure, for example, not to make it too spicy for Americans. I am always trying and testing - that's the secret! I want to make sure I don't go too bland but I don't go too overboard either. So many of the dishes I've created for these menus, I brought them here from Mexico - that's my inspiration."
Like any good restaurant owner, Gomez credits the success of the brand to workers like Vélez who take care of customers across all four locations.
"I could not do what I do without Fredy and the other 116 employees that represent us day-to-day," Jheovanny said. "I also want to emphasize my business partner, Justin Grimball, especially for this location, because he's the one behind all this, who saw us build the largest tequila selection in Alabama here at the downtown restaurant where we have more than 220 tequilas."
A Grateful Neighborhood Restaurant
Most of all, Gomez thanked the community - he said they have supported the Jalapeño's brand since its inception, served as the North Star for its growth and always reaffirmed that Jheovanny made the right decision when he decided in 2001 to not become a computer engineer.
"Every new location that we open, we realize that there are all these other people from other parts of this area, coming out and supporting us. That's been our compass, to know where the next location is going to be," Gomez said. "Our community is the one that has encouraged us to expand and put these restaurants in their neighborhoods because that's what we are - a neighborhood restaurant."
Above all, Jheovanny is grateful. The girlfriend he followed to America, Johana, became his wife, and their three children are quickly becoming young adults. Gomez himself has become a titan of the Tuscaloosa hospitality industry, which he entered as a busboy who could not speak English.
Through long-term leadership roles with organizations including the Boys and Girls Club, the United Way, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama and more, Gomez is a strong community partner who gives time and treasure to good causes whenever he can.
"It's just a blessing to be able to give back to a community that has given me, my business partners and our families, all of these opportunities, to be able to give back and create opportunities for other people," Gomez said. "That's the one reason we all do - Jalapeño's and Jheovanny - why we do everything we do, because we want to give back to a community that is still supporting us after all these years."
Jalapeño's Mexican Grill is open daily in four locations and will be serving their Pork Belly tacos for $9.50 during Tuscaloosa Restaurant Week.
Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for more features every morning this week - we'll be back tomorrow with a conversation with executive chef Jacob Stull about Forté Cuts & Cocktails.