When it comes to food and even restaurants, greatness can be measured in many ways.
A place does not have to be extravagant and its food does not have to be cutting edge or complicated. Sometimes it just has to be a perfect fit, making the perfect kind of food for the audience it serves.
Folks have been telling me about Jeny's Tacos in Kendallville for years, but I foolishly discounted its greatness a bit given it pretty much stands alone in terms of diversity there. But I found myself up there recently and decided to find out if Jeny's was really great or just great for Kendallville. What I found was a great place that would be great no matter where it called home.
Jeny's is not much different than any other taqueria. It is a small building on Main Street with some counter seats and a handful of tables that does as much carry-out as it does dine-in business. Its menu is limited, also.
There are four varieties of tacos, steak and quesadillas, french fries, nachos, chips and salsa, and – oddly – hamburgers. Customers can choose from steak, chicken, ground beef or beans with each.
The first thing I had to try were the Cheese Fries Supreme as they were made like nachos with oozing yellow cheese sauce, beef, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and Parmesan cheese – another oddity. And they were brilliant.
I could not even see the fries in the little cardboard boat they were served in because they were buried under the generous amount of toppings. The sour cream was drizzled heavily on top with a dusting of the Parmesan making the top nearly all white as if the dish was blanketed in snow. There was a ton of that cheese sauce and just the right amount of timidly seasoned ground beef under the lettuce and tomatoes. But the standard thick-cut french fries were fried to be extra crispy and held up to the heaping toppings. I also had no problem with the Parmesan that sort of played like a salty version of queso fresco.
The nachos supreme was made the exact same way, but it was even better. The chips added a welcome corn flavor and also held up under the weight. I did ask for some hot sauce this time to give it a little peppery flavor the ground beef did not have. The mild salsa verde that was delivered did the trick and I had zero complaints.
The tacos had me scratching my head, not because they were not delicious – they were – but because of how they were constructed.
All are made with soft flour tortillas and come with lettuce and tomatoes. Cheese can be had – American or white Chihuahua – and you can get them in the more traditional style with just onions and cilantro. I wondered why they were on the menu in a more American style, but there were no hard shells offered, which is very American.
Well, Jeny's owner Jesus Granados corrected me when I asked.
“People think onions and cilantro are the Mexican way,” said Granados, who hails from Chihuahua, Mexico. “From the middle to south (in Mexico), it is onions and cilantro. But in the middle and north, we use lettuce and tomato. But, in Mexico, we don't use cheese.”
Granados offered shredded American cheese when he opened the restaurant over a decade ago because most Americans like it, he said, and bought Chihuahua cheese only for quesadillas. Soon after, folks asked for the “white cheese” so either is fine. Granados said the Parmesan was his preference and not used out of necessity.
“I use it because it is stronger than the cheese that is normally used,” he said. “It gives it more flavor.”
Hearing Granados talk about his ingredient choices makes you realize how serious he is about his simple offerings. Watching him work the grill, which he does every day, making pretty much everything that comes out of the place, gives you even more respect for his craft.
The way he perfectly lines up the tortillas, the way he carefully fills each with just the right amount of ingredients, the way he carefully flips the food on that grill and wraps the burritos and tacos is a sight to behold. He moves like a conductor creating beautiful music on his grill.
Though I wasn't too excited to try the chicken, it should not be overlooked. My quesadilla had a light layer of refried beans and just enough cheese, but it was the slow-cooked, stringy chicken that made it wonderful. It was super juicy and tender, and not the usual dry chunks many places use. I cannot wait to try it in a burrito.
My steak burrito was a solid choice. It was wrapped tightly so none of the ingredients got lost and there was some of each in every bite. It was not a gargantuan burrito like many of us have gotten used to at quick-service chains, but the tender, well-seasoned steak and its well-balanced ingredients made it a winner.
The only thing Granados crafted on his grill that I would not have again was the cheeseburger. I hoped it would open my eyes as much as everything else, but it was rather mediocre and its sub-par bun did not hold up well. But who needs a burger at a place that makes wonderful Mexican fare, anyway?
I will look past the burger section from now on, but I will not overlook Jeny's Tacos again. I might not make the trip to Kendallville just to go there, but if I am nearby it will be calling my name.
Restaurant: Jeny's Tacos
Address: 215 S. Main St., Kendallville
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Smoking status: Non-smoking
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Tacos ($2.20 for steak; $2 ground beef; $1.95 chicken; $1.75 beans), burritos ($5.10 steak; $5 ground beef; $4.75 chicken; $3.15 beans), quesadillas ($2.50 cheese; $3 cheese and beans; $4.10 chicken; $4.25 steak), fries supreme ($5.10), nachos supreme ($4.75), cheeseburger ($3.80)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum).
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Out of a possible five
• Horchata is available at Jeny's, but soft drinks and water are sold by the can or bottle. Lemonade is available by the cup, but there are no free refills.
• The space is appealing as it is very clean with what looks like a relatively new floor. The counter also looks as if it has been recently refurbished or it is just very well kept. The stools around that counter show no signs of age. I also loved the bright yellow and orange paint on the exterior that makes the restaurant easy to spot.
• Jeny's is a two-person show so be patient if it is busy and/or there are a lot of takeout orders. I received my food fast during each of my visits, but any attention after that is hard to come by. Of course, with no refills and napkins and straws on the tables and counter, there was little attention required.