For José Maximiliano Ruiz — Max, to those who know him — opening his own restaurant has been a longtime dream. The Guatemalan native began his cooking career the hard way; coming to the U.S. in 1995 at age 16, he got a job washing dishes in a Nanuet restaurant. He worked his way up through the kitchen there doing prep work before moving on to the Gypsy Wolf Cantina in Woodstock, where he went in on his own time mornings to learn how to cook Mexican food before working a full shift doing dishes every evening. The hard work paid off, and Max learned his trade well, becoming a chef at the Woodstock eatery. Now, after nearly 20 years of experience behind the line that includes his most recent stint at Shea O’Brien’s for three years, Max and his wife, Sonia, have launched Los Jalapeños Mexican restaurant at 25 North Chestnut Street.
“Ever since I came to this country, it was my dream to have my own business,” says Max. “I have a nine-year-old boy and a two-year-old daughter, now, and so that’s something that I want to do, not too much for me, but for them. And I think New Paltz is the perfect area to open a place.”
Los Jalapeños is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Max is in the kitchen seven days a week from two hours prior to opening until closing. “I make sure I’m here to do everything,” he says. “I don’t buy anything frozen, everything is made here; I do it all from scratch.” Sonia cooks in the restaurant, too, nights and weekends. On the day that New Paltz Times dropped by to chat with Max, Sonia had made a Spanish beef stew for the dinner specials that night, to be served over rice with guacamole and sour cream.
Guacamole is made fresh to order tableside. The menu features tried-and-true Mexican staples like shredded beef and chicken tacos, enchiladas and fajitas, but chef Max has thrown in a few twists, too, offering an entrée of fresh salmon topped with sautéed spinach, monterey jack and muenster cheese and green tomatillo sauce. A recent nightly specials list featured roast duck enchiladas served with peppers, onions and sautéed spinach, and a chiles rellenos entrée made with shrimp or steak and a choice of red guajillo or green tomatillo sauce served with sautéed fall vegetables.
Max says he enjoys creating dinner specials, playing with new ideas and putting together unusual combinations. (He’s the person who came up with the “Irish Nachos” that Shea O’Brien’s used to serve.) “But all the dishes are special to me, because that’s what I love cooking. It’s the type of food that I really enjoy and I’m just doing my best so I can give all my best to the New Paltz people.”
A liquor license is pending; Max expects to be able to offer beer, wine and a full bar within the next few months. But even without margaritas, business has been great, he says, especially for dinner. “I cannot complain now. I’m really happy and excited it’s the way it is. I open and I never close.”
The dining room seats 40, its cheerful wall murals of red and green jalapeño peppers painted by local artist Marcy Bernstein on a mustard yellow backdrop. The patio will be open for dining in the spring; Max says they plan to make it a special area to sit. Prices are in the $11 to $15 range for entrées with specials slightly higher. Los Jalapeños is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 25 North Chestnut Street. Take-out is available by calling (845) 255-9000, 255-9001. More information is available on Facebook at Los Jalapeños Mexican Restaurant.