Jalapeno Loco: A Gateway Staple for 21 Years

Jalapeno Loco has been bringing authentic Mexican cuisine to the Southside for the past 21 years. The restaurant’s unique menu that features their trademark mole sauces, along with its cozy, amiable atmosphere, make it a staple in the Gateway community.  Stacy sat down with the restaurant’s owners, Hugo and Janet Saynes, to hear more about the story behind Jalapeno Loco and how they have blended their passion for cooking Mexican food and their love for the restaurant business into a lifetime career.

Hugo and Janet have been working in the restaurant industry since 1984. They developed a love for the business, working at various restaurants throughout New York City. They tended bar, bussed and waited tables, and eventually managed a restaurant. The Saynes’ moved back to Milwaukee in 1991, and once they had saved up enough money, they opened Jalapeno Loco in September 1995, at their first location on Packard Avenue in Cudahy.

They moved to their current location on Howell Avenue, just West of General Mitchell International Airport in 2000. This location suited their needs perfectly; they had outgrown their restaurant on Packard Avenue, “for a while we couldn’t even get out of the kitchen with the food, there were so many people in the restuarant. We literally had to hold plates up above our heads to get through the crowds” says Janet. They didn’t want to go far because they had an established clientele, and wanted to make it easy for their customers to follow them.

Hugo and Janet used to drive around the airport area, looking for spaces for sale. One day, they drove by their current location which used to be called Ashley’s, and Hugo said to Janet: “Oh how I wish these people would sell me this place! But I’m sure they will ask millions for it.” The next day, their real estate agent called them, and said she had a property for them…it was Ashley’s and it was in their price range.

Everything came full circle for them when they bought that building. Ashley’s was the first restaurant that Hugo & Janet ate dinner at when they first moved back to Milwaukee. It was also the first place that Janet got a job after the move. It was truly meant to be.

Since opening Jalapeno Loco in 1995, they have built a community of loyal customers and employees, some of whom have been with them since day one. As Janet puts it: “It’s amazing to see so many of our customers keep coming back, year after year. We’ve seen the second generations of some of these families come through our doors. Their parents used to bring them here to eat, and now they are bringing their own families…that is priceless.”

Jalapeno Loco has an established local clientele, but being located directly across the street from General Mitchell International Airport, also brings in new customers from all over the world. They’ve had customers from Germany, Japan, Mexico, and all over the U.S; they love talking to these travelers and hearing their stories. Before 9/11 when there were less security restrictions, they used to have regulars come in who were business travelers, and they would order food to-go to take back to their families.

When a business can forge relationships like this, you know that the owners love what they do! Hugo agrees: “We love it! That’s why 21 years later, we’re still doing the same thing, 7 days a week, and working lots of hours. You need to love the restaurant business in order to be successful.” Even though they put in more than 40 hours of work a week, they would do this again if they had the choice.

Jalapeno Loco’s specials menu changes every 2 weeks, so they constantly have new dishes, very traditional Mexican dishes that people won’t find anywhere else. “I think that’s what lends to our uniqueness as a restaurant and the creative aspect of it; someone is always going to find something different to try” says Janet.

Hugo and Janet have been cooking their specialty dishes since Jalapeno Loco opened its doors in 1995. They have no technical training in the kitchen; they learned how to cook at home. Hugo’s mother used to spend 3 months with them each summer and they would cook together. Before they opened the business, they spent 3-4 months cooking different dishes for friends and family, and asking for their opinions and critiques.

Hugo is from Oaxaca, Mexico, a city well known for its culinary traditions and their moles. They visit Oaxaca quite often and travel to other parts of Mexico to try new dishes and bring back recipes to cook for their specials. One of their most unique specialty dishes from Puebla, chiles en nogadas, a poblano pepper stuffed with fruit and pork and a sauce made with walnuts, cheese, cream and milk, caught the attention of Dennis Getto, a food critic at the Journal Sentinel. His critique of this dish in the 90s, is what really put Jalapeno Loco on the map, here in Milwaukee.

Jalapeno Loco continues to strengthen their presence in the Gateway community, today. They participated in the Taste of the Gateway this summer, and enjoy staying involved in a variety of other ways, because “The only reason that we are in business is because the community frequents our restaurant” states Hugo. Hugo and Janet love working in the restaurant business and love the airport area and the people in it. “The whole airport area community is just wonderful, and it’s been so stable. It’s a beautiful area to be in” explains Janet.

The Gateway to Milwaukee thanks you for all of your involvement and support!