Habanero Mexican Cafe
We break the eat-but-don't-tell rule with this small and delicious eatery
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., Nov. 30, 2007
Habanero Mexican Cafe501 W. Oltorf, 416-0443
Sunday-Monday, 7am-3pm; Tuesday-Thursday, 7am-5pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-9pm
AusTex old-timers may fondly remember Dos Hermanos Restaurant, in the little house near the southeast corner of South First and Oltorf. Habanero Mexican Cafe owner Arturo Ibarra is the son of one of the previous Hermanos and, with wife Evelyn, has run the business in the manner of their predecessors for 10 years. It's one of my favorites for south-of-the-border eats; everything I've tried here has been superb.
All of the marinated meats used in the tacos, enchiladas, and plates come off of a mesquite grill. The beef fajita rancheros plate ($8.95) is a sizzling cast-iron platter with thick strips of tender skirt steak bursting with flavor, mixed with strips of onion, jalapeño, and bell pepper – easily enough to fill three tortillas. On the side are excellent savory rice, wonderful soupy charro beans (loaded with bacon, jalapeño slices, and onions), pico de gallo, and chunky guacamole. This is fajita perfection. Enchiladas ($6.50) made with that same meat and topped with a zippy red sauce are fantastic.
The steak ranchero platter ($7.95) is two large, thin, tender, stacked cuts of tasty bisteca beef, topped with grilled onions, serrano chile strips, and diced tomato, served with the fajita sides – enough to fill four tortillas, and every bite delicious.
We tried tacos containing other grilled options ($1.75-2). The chicken fajita taco is tender and loaded with smoky, spicy taste. The lengua (tongue) is unctuous, practically melting in your mouth. The succulently tender pork chile colorado is sublime, as is the carne guisado: tender cubes of meat in a thick, garlicky gravy kissed with cumin.
A specialty is the gordita ($3.50), made with your choice of the assorted meats; we chose pork al pastor. Habanero's version is presented clamshell-style: two light masa "buns" enclosing a layer of refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and their excellent citrusy, smoky al pastor pork. It's more like a masa hamburger than a puffed-up grease ball that's typical in lesser restaurants.
Breakfast is offered all day and not to be missed. Any configuration of plump breakfast taco is available ($1.25-2). Being fans of the machacado taco ($1.50), we couldn't resist. The air-dried shredded beef made famous in a small village just north of Monterrey is mixed with scrambled eggs, nice with their green salsa, a thick, garlicky serrano chile puree with cilantro. Habanero serves definitive platter versions of migas ($5.50), and recommended are the chori-migas ($5.95): You guessed it, migas made with ungreasy chorizo. Lunch specials are offered between 11am and 3pm for $5.25. They change by the day, but take note that the chicken mole is on Friday. There's beer, Mexican and domestic, but no liquor. We sampled both the refreshingly sweet-tart homemade lemonade and the lush vanilla-and-cinnamon-scented horchata rice drink; both are $2 and worth every penny.
The menu may seem carnivore-centric, but there are veggie and fish options. For the vegans, they do a nice-looking grill of roasted poblano chile strips, squash, tomato, mushrooms, and onions, with or without cheese and/or rice. We can't wait to try the catfish rancheros done fajita-style: two catfish fillets under grilled chiles, onions, and peppers.
Habanero seats about 60, which means a wait during busy times is probable. Thankfully, the service is efficient and welcoming, and the food comes out fast. The short delay for food is easy, noshing on their chips and rich and spicy salsa: a thick puree of tomato, lots of chiles and garlic, and a dab of cilantro (the first basket is free; the next one costs). Great small places this good scream for the eat-but-don't-tell rule, but Habanero is too good to keep a secret.