What the Hell is This Thing?
2 weeks ago
I’ve made it to Habañero twice in the last couple of weeks, and I think it’s a great lunch spot with tasty food, interesting combinations, and a good value. My first impression when I walked in was that the menu was really enormous with not much logic to its layout. Fortunately, we had a few minutes in line, so I scanned most of it before settling on a dish: the Latin Steak Plate.
The Latin Steak Plate is basically a Latin Steak Salad—flank steak on a bed of greens with beans, salsa, and cheese. The dish was a generous size for lunch with plenty of steak and a delicious mango-jalapeño salsa. Like most mid-scale restaurants, the steak was too well done and a little dried out, but it was seasoned surprisingly well, so it still had a latin taste to it and wasn’t a turn off. The rest of the salad was also very fresh, and the crisp greens separated this place from the majority of restaurants that can’t figure out how to make a salad particularly appetizing.
While the salad was good, the chips were great. I can’t quite describe what makes these chips different than the chips I’ve had at every other latin restaurant, but they were delicious and lighter tasting than most others. The salsa was fine, though a little too liquidy for my cohort and I.
On my second visit, I gave them another shot at cooking a great steak and ordered the Arroyo Hondo—a burrito with “hand-rubbed spiced flank steak” and “smoky-tomato chipotle salsa.” The steak was about the same as on my first visit—overcooked, but still well seasoned. Fortunately, with the delicious chipotle salsa, I hardly noticed that the steak was a little dry, and the rest of the burrito (beans & rice) was satisfying and tasty. So based on my experience, only order the steak if you like it well-done. Otherwise, maybe I’ll try chicken next time.
Having been there in the middle of lunch-time, I was surprised that the line was so short and moved so quickly. While parking can be a little tricky at peak times because the restaurant shares the lot with a couple of other vendors, you can definitely get in and out during a short lunch break. And don’t be surprised if you run into me there, because I will definitely be back.
I have been known to say that I love Chipotle. At the same time, I am always on a quest for a more exciting burrito or at the very least, a more locally owned burrito joint. A few times this year I have visited Habañero in Clifton, and while it's usually good, I think the quality is only as consistent as the person helping from behind the counter.
Last week I had a plain old veggie burrito salad, and I was a little disappointed. I felt like the counter-guy offered me hardly any options; I had been there enough times to know that there were lots of choices, but not often enough to know them by name and ask for them. My burrito plate was a bit boring: lettuce, beans, tomatoes, onions, cheese, salsa. I was less than impressed, but I also blamed myself for getting a boring burrito and not pushing him to offer me more interesting things to put inside. For example, there are about six different kinds of salsa, varying from fruity to tart. Another time I was there, I thought the goat cheese-and-carmalized onion mix would be delicious. It definitely was, but it also didn’t really match with my burrito. Lesson learned: go for the interesting things, but not too interesting!
This time, I decided on a signature item, the Chuba Cabre, which includes “cinnamon-roasted squash, pinto beans, rice, apple green chile salsa.” Mine also had lettuce, tomatoes, medium sauce, and, of course, cheddar cheese. It was fantastic. After my first bite, I said something along the lines of “This squash is delicious! I don’t think I’ve ever said that before.” I’m not big on cooked vegetables, but as a friend of mine has learned with her cooked carrots, if you add cinnamon, I like it better. (Note: rule does not apply to broccoli; there is no way to make that edible for me.) It was full of interesting flavors: the cinnamon and tart green apple worked really well together, and the rice and beans gave it the volume to fill me up and feel like a meal. I loved it.
It was a special, so it also came with chips and salsa! Their chips are homemade, fried, and thick. They remind me a little of Chinese noodles that come with soup, but probably mainly in their fried-ness. They are very good, but not exactly what you expect. The salsa is good, but not my favorite part. I like fresh salsa where each item is easily identifiable. By which I mean pico de gallo. This is more blended and smooth with only a few chunks, and there isn’t quite enough to go with all the chips. Which means, obviously, that I ate as much as I could.
Habañero gets crowded right at lunch time. It’s on Ludlow, with a free parking lot shared with another restaurant, but even that lot will fill up around noon, but somehow, the line is never more than a few people long—not quite long enough to figure out what you want! I’ve never had a problem finding a table, although on one visit, an employee loudly told those in line that there would be a 10-minute wait for a table once they had food. There was no wait, and I’m convinced he did it to make the lingerers who were done eating look around and leave. It worked! If you need a lunchtime (or dinnertime, but I’ve only been for lunch) pick-me-up, they also have beer, margaritas, mojitos, sangria, and smoothies (with or without rum). I haven’t tried them, as I usually come between classes, but they’re there.
I noticed on the Newport on the Levee page that there is a new branch of Habañero that just opened there, but the Habañero webpage does not yet mention it. I assume the Newport website people wouldn’t lie, so let us know how the new location is! I’m going to keep going to the Clifton one for a quick, delicious, and interesting lunch…as long as I order wisely and boldly.