Last winter, Jalisco Cantina Manager Jeff Carl scheduled all of his new staff to start training on March 16 to open a new Mexican restaurant and tequila bar in Whitefish. So when Whitefish Mountain Resort shut down on March 15 amid the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the state began shutting down, Carl called his staff to tell them Jalisco’s opening would be delayed.
From there, Carl brainstormed what to do in a time when the bar and restaurant industry was shut down for the foreseeable future. He wanted to open, but he had to figure out the right time.
Once June hit and the Flathead Valley came alive with outdoor activities and tourism, Carl decided to pull the trigger and open for the summer.
“The nerve-wracking thing was if we should open or not,” he said.
Between local support, tourism and a hardworking staff, he managed to open Jalisco Cantina on July 1.
Since opening, Carl estimates Jalisco has sold 100,000 tacos. During the summer, he went through 25 cases of the Altos house tequila and sold 350 house margaritas per night, not including the other cocktails on the menu.
“We sold the state of Montana out of Altos,” Carl said.
Jalisco carries more than 100 tequilas and mezcals, ranging in price from $5 a shot to $335, with all of the high-end spirits and wines kept in a 57-degree vault.
Despite the high price tag, Carl says the Clase Azul tequila is in high demand and he’s almost out of the Ultra, the most expensive tier. Each bottle is handmade out of clay and hand painted with four different tequilas and one mezcal.
In addition to the house margarita, Jalisco has 12 cocktails on the menu with other favorites such as the cilantro smash margarita and an Old Fashioned made with tequila and mezcal.
All other liquors are made in Montana only, including Spotted Bear Spirits and Glacier Distilling.
“We really wanted to support the local Montana-made spirits,” Carl said.
To pair with Jalisco’s extensive drink list, Carl recruited a renowned chef from Coeur d’Alene to run the kitchen. While the carne asada tacos are the most popular, the menu also has entrees like chile relleno and birria de res.
Carl prides the restaurant on its use of fresh ingredients, and customers can see three stand-up planter walls outside the window that they use to grow fresh herbs.
“We use traditional ingredients and put together traditional dishes with our own touches,” Carl said. “A lot of people recognize that we’re doing things differently. I think it’s important to understand that Mexican ingredients are really fresh. Up in the States, we’re used to having things melted on a plate with a pile of cheese. We want to make sure you taste all the different ingredients.”
The chefs make everything in-house besides the flour tortillas, and they have an exclusive Sweet Peaks Ice Cream flavor, a borchata fried ice cream coated in cinnamon rice puff crunch with a pineapple rum sauce.
In addition to the wide-open restaurant space with a large, accordion-style window that opens in the summer with a fire pit and heaters outside, Jalisco also has a private dining room upstairs with views of Big Mountain. Carl says it’s reserved nightly, sometimes with two or three reservations per night.
“There’s nothing like it in the valley,” Carl said. While Jalisco’s owner, Dave Pike, has another Jalisco Cantina in Oceanside, California, which only has eight tables, Carl wanted to grow the Whitefish restaurant into a larger concept. “We try to get things that people haven’t seen around the valley,” Carl said.
“We’re not inventing anything but we use the creativity of our staff.”
Carl hopes to expand the bar this summer to have 120 tequilas, and while he doesn’t plan on changing the menu, he intends fine-tune it and keep it seasonal.
Jalisco Cantina is located at 510 Wisconsin Ave. in Whitefish.
For more information, visit www.thejaliscocantina.com.
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