Mucho Mexican

Don’t be surprised if you have one of the best Mexican meals of your life in Jackson Hole.

By Mark Huffman
Photography by Ryan Dorgan

Merry Piglets is one of the valley’s most popular, and oldest, Mexican restaurants.

Merry Piglets is one of the valley’s most popular, and oldest, Mexican restaurants.

“If I don’t eat Mexican food one day, or two days, I’m dying.”
– Alfonso Centeno, owner of El Abuelito

THERE WAS MEXICAN food in Jackson Hole when actual Mexicans were rare here. Times have changed. Now there are many Mexican immigrants, Mexican-Americans, and first-generation Americans with Hispanic names. In the early 1990s Hispanics were infrequent in the valley, but by 2013 the U.S. census put the local population at more than 3,200, nearly 19 percent of the total.

So it should surprise no one that the valley’s Mexican restaurant scene has exploded. Today there are about a dozen of them. “It’s at the saturation point, that’s for sure,” says Joe Rice, owner of the oldest and probably best known, Merry Piglets, which opened in 1969 and Rice bought in 1992. “I don’t know how many restaurants of any kind we can handle. The restaurant scene in town is really good, but I think there are more Mexican restaurants in town than anything else.”

Street tacos are one of the most popular items on the menu at Merry Piglets. Pictured are al pastor tacos, with pineapple-marinated pork and guajillo pepper.

Street tacos are one of the most popular items on the menu at Merry Piglets. Pictured are al pastor tacos, with pineapple-marinated pork and guajillo pepper.

When Rice came to Jackson looking for a business to buy and found Piglets, the restaurant was a summer-only outdoor eatery at the old Crabtree Corner. He educated himself by working in a friend’s Mexican place in Texas. Rice says he was “the only white guy in the kitchen.”

But the fact that he’s an Anglo in a business dominated by Mexican and Mexican-American immigrants isn’t an issue for Rice, who runs a number of dining establishments in town under the name Blue Collar Restaurant Group. “Just because you’re Mexican doesn’t mean you know how to cook Mexican food,” he says, and besides, “The entire kitchen is Hispanic, guys who’ve been with us for twenty years.”

A waitress at El Abuelito picks up fresh tortillas to accompany diners’ entrees.

A waitress at El Abuelito picks up fresh tortillas to accompany diners’ entrees.

OTHER PLACES ARE pleased to note their inherited authenticity. At Taqueria Sanchez, owner Maria Carlos, a twelve-year Jackson resident, tells customers that all her recipes are “from the house … from the grandma.” In the Kmart Plaza, at Tijuana Authentic Mexican Restaurant, Mario Morales, whose family owns the restaurant, says the recipes are the same as his family eats at home, although there are a few changes he thinks people will like. “We invented them,” he says of the dishes. “But there’s a little twist to it, it’s not just Mexican.”

At Streetfood at the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson, the Mexican part of the menu came to town with Marcos Hernandez, who runs the place with his American wife, Amelia Hatchard. “The recipes are invented by my husband, and many came from his mom,” Hatchard says. “She was a professional cook, and the mother of eleven.”

Alfonso Centeno owns the biggest competition to Piglets, El Abuelito, on West Broadway. Soon after he arrived in Jackson, Centeno says he looked around and decided “there was room in town for another Mexican restaurant. When we opened the door [in November 2001] we were always busy from the first day.” He thinks there’s always demand for a good product. “When you sell something, you have to sell something you really like,” he says. “And if I don’t eat Mexican food one day, or two days, I’m dying.” The appeal crosses cultural lines, Centeno says. “It’s really warm,” he says of the food of his birth country, referring not to the temperature but the feeling it gives you. “Mexican food is really tasty. I eat one dish, I want another.”

A local enjoys lunch—three carne asada tacos—at Taqueria Sanchez in downtown Jackson.

A local enjoys lunch—three carne asada tacos—at Taqueria Sanchez in downtown Jackson.

Here’s a brief guide:

Started in 1969 as a summer picnic-bench operation, Merry Piglets Mexican Grill was bought by Joe Rice in 1992. The place is big and often packed, noisy, and busy. The inside is decorated to imitate the adobe walls of a Mexican village. The size of the menu is surpassed only by the number of salsas made in-house daily. Try the shrimp enchiladas and wash them down with a strawberry-jalapeno margarita. Rice likes the carne asada, but says the street tacos are among the most popular. 160 N. Cache; 307/733-2966

Down the road from Town Square, Alfonso Centeno’s El Abuelito Mexican Restaurant is utilitarian inside. A few hanging sombreros are flanked by the numerous trophies won by the restaurant’s soccer team. You’ll see Mexicans eating at all the Mexican restaurants in town, but Abuelito seems to be a favorite, judging by numbers. Abuelito—it means “grandfather” in Spanish—has a big menu, including thirteen kinds of burritos. 385 W. Broadway; 307/733-1207

Maria Carlos opened Taqueria Sanchez twelve years ago and is still in the kitchen most days.

Maria Carlos opened Taqueria Sanchez twelve years ago and is still in the kitchen most days.

In summer, snag a seat outside at one of Taqueria Sanchez’s picnic tables. When outside isn’t an option, twenty feet of counter space with ten stools can be found indoors. Sanchez is known for its burritos, but there’s nothing here that isn’t tasty. Proprietor Maria Carlos is there nearly constantly—“I don’t have any time for me,” she says. If you like your meal, you can tell the cooks about it without raising your voice—they’re right there behind Maria, you’ll just have to speak loudly enough to be heard over the sizzling grill. 65 S. Glenwood; 307/734-5407

Hatch Taquería & Tequilas offers six varieties of tacos, five house-made salsas, and a menu of margaritas.

Hatch Taquería & Tequilas offers six varieties of tacos, five house-made salsas, and a menu of margaritas.

If you’re heading to Mountain High Pizza you’ll be disappointed to find that it disappeared a couple years back. You won’t be disappointed if you go in anyway and enjoy what’s there now, Hatch Taquería & Tequilas, easily the most upscale Mexican fare in town. Think smoked salmon tostadas, mesquite-grilled scallops, and chipotle honey-glazed sweet potatoes. The bar features what is rumored to be the state’s biggest selection of tequilas. 120 W. Broadway; 307/203-2780

El Tequila is another family operation, this one headed by Christian and Ramon Perez, who worked a variety of jobs around town before opening in late 2014. The menu is mostly Mexican—enchiladas, tamales, burritos, and quesadillas—but also has seafood and pasta entrees for dinner. El Tequila is also open for breakfast. 545 E. Broadway; 307/264-1577

When you enter the Stagecoach Bar, look right, past the pool tables, and there’s Streetfood. It serves a variety of bar food, burgers, and sandwiches, but it’s the restaurant’s Mexican specialties that shine. Tacos, which you can order individually, are filled with carne asada, al pastor, chicken tinga, or mahi mahi. If you’re coming from skiing, biking, or hiking on Teton Pass, there’s nowhere else to go. 5755 W. Highway 22 in Wilson, in the Stagecoach Bar; 307/200-6633

Some restaurants are hard to find, but Los Nopalitos actually seems to be hiding. Exit Powderhorn Plaza by the Sears loading dock onto Powderhorn Lane. Look for a sign on a building to the left. Go around. Los Nopalitos is at the inside angle of the L-shaped structure. The place is plain inside and the food good. Tongue tacos? Ask for lengua. Or try tacos de camarones. Go ahead and practice your Spanish—staff seems to be practicing their English. 975 Alpine Lane; 307/212-9645

Tijuana Authentic Mexican Restaurant has excellent tacos and enchiladas, and very fine mole sauce. If you like to take pictures of your food, this is your place, as it does the prettiest presentations of all the Mexican restaurants. Kmart Plaza on W. Broadway; 307/733-3554

Across from Albertsons, Pica’s Mexican Taqueria is one of the most popular restaurants in Jackson, Mexican or not. This only is partially because of its sunny, expansive patio. It’s got the best chips in town—fresh-made—and surprisingly great ceviche, as well as a variety of burritos and Mexican salads and soups (chicken posole, tortilla soup). Put its wet sauce on anything and it’ll taste great. 1160 Alpine Lane; 307/734-4457

| Posted in JH Living
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