Before Chipotle's corporate tendrils had spread through Cincinnati, there were few really good burrito joints. Habanero was easily one of the most popular. These days, burrito restaurants are a dime a dozen. But despite all the competition, Habanero still holds its own. They even have their own food truck to tap into the latest craze.
The Clifton-based burrito restaurant has been feeding a local community spiked with UC and Cincinnati State students since late 1999. The place hasn't changed decor much, although wall hangings from local artists get a regular rotation. Walking into Habanero is like meeting an old friend wrapped in a flour tortilla.
Given its consistently younger clientele, Habanero can't help but transport me back to my college days. The restaurant always has an eclectic musical selection piping overhead; neighboring tables often echo lively, grandiose debates heavily influenced by whatever philosophy or poly-sci courses patrons may be taking at the time.
Habanero offers seven signature burritos to choose from, as well as an assortment of salads, quesadillas, chimichangas, tacos and tostadas. My favorite menu item has to be the "Mad Max," not only because I love crazy loon Mel Gibson's movie, but because its burrito namesake is jam-packed with plump, fried tilapia, pinto beans, rice, cheddar cheese, cabbage and a creamy white sauce. The steak-filled "Arroyo Hondo" and the "Calypso Chicken" are also tops on my list, and I fondly remember the cinnamon roasted squash-filled "Chuba Cabre" from my vegetarian days.
Salsas at Habanero are among the most memorable aspects of the restaurant. There are six to choose from, each with its own distinct flavor and heat component. One thing Habanero does not do is falsely advertise spice levels. When they tell you a salsa is hot, boy do they mean it! My lips are often left swollen and pleasantly tingly after choosing the spicier options.
Habanero's house salsa is quite addictive. It's not particularly spicy, but it's got a roasted tomato/chipotle component with a uniquely smoky, slightly vinegary tang. Their thick tortilla chips are flour-based, which I think is a good choice for this type of salsa. Corn-based chips would overpower its flavor.
I once gave owner Max Monks shit about the tilde appearing over the word, "Habanero" in his logo. Max conceded there really shouldn't be one, although when he first opened, a Cuban friend of his had told him there was and so he stuck it on the logo. Several nitpickers like me have since pointed out the error.
When pronouncing the word, the "H" should be silent, with a hard "N," like "ah-bah-NAIR-oh." Instead, even the most seasoned chefs and Food TV stars pronounce it, "hah-ban-YARE-oh." It's like nails on a chalkboard, amigo!
Then again, I've always been a little high-strung. Just take a deep breath, sink into a booth and bring a Mad Max lovingly to your mouth.