Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.
A few years ago, two buddies and I strolled into OnStage Drinks & Grinds, a sports bar at the corner of Kapahulu Avenue in Honolulu. A woman named Lulu ran her own mini Mexican restaurant out of the bar’s kitchen, serving giant wet burritos and pulled pork nachos that were out of this world. We heard the stuffed jalapeños were equally amazing, and we wanted to see for ourselves. Luckily, we arrived at happy hour, when Lulu was offering her famous poppers (normally $3) for just a buck each. Hell yes, my friends and I said, and we ordered 18 to share.
We were surprised when the jalapeños arrived and they were grilled and bright green, and packed with mozzarella cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, and a squirt of sour cream. They were delicious, but eye-wateringly spicy (Lulu, that rascal, had savagely left all the capsican-loaded seeds and membrane inside each jalapeño) and the three of us choked them down while guzzling many beers.
We ate, and we cried. Were Lulu’s poppers authentic and delicious? Definitely. But they were also a real disappointment because they were not oily; filled with a mix of cream cheese, Monterey Jack, and Cheddar; and deep-fried, like Jack in the Box’s Stuffed jalapeños, which are the greatest stuffed jalapeño poppers ever created.
For over two decades, they’ve graced the menu at Jack in the Box as part of a round-up of greasy treats from different cultures, like a model UN for fried foods: Chinese-inspired egg rolls, German-style loaded potato wedges, the Italian-ish (?) cheesy macaroni bites. Mexico scored two culinary offerings in this Hall-of-Fame showcase: the (in)famous “wet envelope of cat food” tacos, of which Jack in the Box somehow sells 554 million each year; and the jalapeño poppers, which sells a respectable 13 million orders annually.
“Poppers are not quite as popular as our [two] tacos or Jumbo Jacks, but sell more than onion rings or cheesy potato wedges,” says Kathleen Kennedy, director of culinary innovation at Jack in the Box. According to Kennedy, the idea to add something fried with “a touch of heat and a creamy inside” to the menu was a novel idea for a burger restaurant back then. It still is.
Health-wise, the stuffed jalapeños are a mess of nutrients and nitrates. A single popper has 73 calories (nearly half coming from fat), four grams of fat, 242 milligrams of sodium, and nearly six grams of cholesterol. But potassium-lovers rejoice, because they also each have over 30 milligrams of potassium. And two grams of protein, for fitness buffs looking to refuel post-workout—which apparently includes bigheaded “CEO” mascot Jack Box, who claims to enjoy them as his favorite cheat-day snack.
One of the only indulgences I allowed myself was a bi-monthly visit to the neighborhood Jack in the Box. I’d order a seven-piece box of poppers, sit alone at a corner table, and eat each one with great ceremony, like Don Draper with a Hershey’s bar.
“When he’s not spending his time getting fit, Jack absolutely loves the flavorful stuffed jalapeños,” says Kennedy. “Don’t tell his trainer.” Your secret’s safe with me, buddy.
I remember the first time I saw a Jack in the Box popper. I was a kid, going through the drive-thru with my family, when I spotted a guy sitting inside the dining room eating (what looked to me like) misshapen chicken nuggets. He dunked each one in a milky sauce that I speculated to be Alfredo. It would take the next few visits of ordering various blob-shaped menu items in trial-and-error (they weren’t nuggets; they weren’t egg rolls) before I discovered these glorious flavor bombs.
Taking a bite of the Jack in the Box jalapeño popper—or, for the eager, popping the whole thing into one’s mouth—is an experience of textures, temperatures, and tastes that could rival even the most fanciful and outlandish molecular gastronomy creations from the top Michelin-rated restaurants. Dipped first into cool, creamy buttermilk ranch sauce, a hot Jack in the Box popper is crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, and spicy throughout. It’s a little too much to order a side of poppers on top of a full burger-and-fries combo but luckily, a three-piece baggie or seven-piece box can be swapped in instead of fries for a nominal charge.
To be honest, Jack in the Box’s jalapeño poppers got me through some tough times. There was a point in my life when I was going to college and working part-time on the sales floor at CompUSA (back when they were in business, over a decade ago), making something like eight bucks an hour. After taxes, my take-home pay added up to around a hundred bucks a week, and after every pay cycle, one of the only indulgences I allowed myself was a bi-monthly visit to the neighborhood Jack in the Box. I’d order a seven-piece box of poppers, sit alone at a corner table, and eat each one with great ceremony, like Don Draper with a Hershey’s bar.
When all else fails you—whether it’s the economy or even other restaurants’ jalapeño poppers—thank the fast food gods (are you there, Ronald?) that the Jack in the Box stuffed jalapeños haven’t changed, and hopefully never will.