(out of 4 stars)
2524 Federal Blvd., 303-964-9544
Recommended Dishes Elote en vaso, red chile posole, calabacitas-stuffed sopapilla
In 2000, 5280 restaurant critic Lori Midson said she'd drive across town just to eat Jack-n-Grill's elote en vaso. The appetizer—corn kernels tossed with lemon, butter, hot sauce, chile powder, and Parmesan—was different, and more addictive, than any New Mexican cuisine she knew. And it wasn't just the corn. Each time she returned, Midson found something unexpected, if over the top—hamburgers stacked with hot dogs, Frito pie with fiery green chile—and with each meal she grew more enamored with the spot. When she finally stamped Jack-n-Grill with stars, Midson gave it three and a half out of four.
Everything you need to know about Jack-n-Grill is detailed in its recent TV appearances. In March, the New Mexican eatery starred in the Travel Channel's Man v. Food. (The show's host, Adam Richman, attempted to eat Jack's seven-pound breakfast burrito, and he failed.) Then, in April, the Travel Channel returned to film Extreme Places to Pig-Out, spotlighting the restaurant's five-stack enchiladas and enormous combination plates.
At Jack-n-Grill you certainly won't go hungry, but you may leave disappointed. While the spot serves up portions that can compete with an all-you-can-eat buffet, its dishes are neither carefully prepared nor particularly flavorful. Midson may have been able to overlook these attributes a decade ago, when Denver's casual dining was less developed, but today they are harder to forgive. The Anna burger ($8), for instance, named after co-owner Anna Martinez, is a 10-ounce chuck patty smeared with yellow mustard, cheese, and green chile and stacked with lettuce and sopapillas. Although I asked for the burger medium-rare, it arrived well-done, and the hefty smear of mustard overwhelmed the other toppings.
Jack-n-Grill's classic New Mexican dishes, enchiladas, and tacos are better executed, but even they are a far cry from the well-seasoned staples of Albuquerque, the homeland of Anna and her husband/co-owner, Jack Martinez. Yes, the posole ($4-$7), which I ordered spiced with deep red chile, had the dark, earthy flavors I expect of a stew made of hominy and roasted pork. But the small sides of limes and chopped onion weren't substantial enough to further flavor the large soup. And although the No. 1 combo plate ($11) had the right cheese, tortilla, and egg flavors, the robust smothering of green chile made it difficult to differentiate between the dish's cheese enchilada, chile relleno, and soft taco.
The loyal clientele, a diverse smattering of young families from Highland, nearby Jefferson Park residents, and downtown professionals on their lunch breaks, however, seems willing to forgive the average eats—maybe because they like the portion sizes and low prices, but more likely because they dig the vibe. In truth, there's something undeniably homey about the casual spot. Open the menu, and you'll find the entire Martinez family—right down to the grandchildren—pictured on the pages. Look up, and the server who greets you will likely be one of those faces.
There's also the kitsch factor: Martinez has replaced the dried chile peppers of Midson's visit with every possible riff on his name. A Jack Nicholson collage and a framed box of Kellogg's Apple Jacks hang on the wall. It's clear that the Martinez family doesn't take itself too seriously; whether it's the play on the restaurant's name, the lighthearted decor, or the simple eats, Jack-n-Grill isn't masquerading as highbrow or refined.
Instead, the restaurant is unpretentious, and that attitude, along with the handful of tasty plates, makes the spot worth visiting. A spoonful of the zesty elote en vaso ($2-$5) or puffy sopapillas stuffed with cheese, sautéed zucchini, and pinto beans ($10), and you can forgive the menu's less inspired dishes and the often slow-as-molasses service.