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Jul 6, 2006 01:09 AM

Review of Austin’s Habeñero Mexican Cafe

After recommending Habeñero Mexican Cafe (located at 501 W. Oltorf Street between South Congress and 1st) to a visiting ‘hound last week, I couldn’t stop thinking about their Tex-Mex home-cooking. So I went there for lunch today. The place was full of middle-class Mexican-American couples, adults with their parents or young kids, and groups of men on a lunch break, along with some non-Hispanic diners eating solo or with friends from work. (Were any of you chowhounds there? We need some kind of secret signal.) The server was a friendly Mexican-American woman—-bilingual, in case anyone’s worried about their Spanish—-who was expertly handling the whole room. Right away she brought me chips with a mild, serviceable red salsa, and proceeded to give me good advice on how much food to order. To drink I had a fresh-squeezed sweet lemonade, which is the only kind of agua fresca they offer. The chips and tortillas were store-bought but not bad.

For lunch I had one taco de carne guisada, one gordita con lengua, and a side order of refried beans. The carne guisada was good--tender, with a nice “gravy,” and simply seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and cumin. The lengua was excellent. Very flavorful chunks of tongue were steam-roasted to perfection. This dish was also very subtly spiced so that the flavor of the well-cooked meat shone through. The gorditas themselves were a bit unusual. They're often griddle-cooked on a comal then fried so that the fat corn tortillas (gordita means little fat one) puff up in the hot oil. Sometimes gorditas are only fried; sometimes they’re oven-baked then just warmed on the comal. The ones at HMC were crisp on the outside but a bit undercooked on the inside, and they didn’t taste fried. Plus, instead of being split and filled, San-Antonio-Tex-Mex style, two of them were placed on top of each other, with the filling in the middle, along with a dab of refried beans, some shredded lettuce, chunks of tomato, and grated cheddar cheese. The effect was like a “Mexican hamburger,” just as described on the menu. The refried beans had a nice texture and lots of body (not soupy at all), but they tasted vegetarian. Unfortunately, so did the gorditas, which can be amazing if you add a little bacon grease. Or lard, in a pinch. Unfortunately, restaurants that are trying to attract non-Tejano middle-to-high-income Austin diners steer clear of bacon grease or lard in their beans, gorditas, and tortillas. What a shame.

As good as almost all their dishes are, however, what Habeñero does best is carnes asadas (charcoal- or wood-grilled meats). Their fajitas rancheras de res (beef) are very good. They’re not just fajitas served with ranchera sauce (sometimes even cheese). In HMC's version the meat is marinated in a highly seasoned, just-spicy-enough mixture of garlic, onion, chiles, and citrus. Incredibly flavorful. Their plain fajitas and carne asada are likewise very good. I've also sampled their carnitas. These were fairly moist slices of roast pork (about 2” long and 1/2” thick) that were crisped on the top and bottom. It appeared as though the pork shoulder was steamed in a very large chunk before being fried at the end in pork fat. The smaller the chunks of pork, the more tasty crisp edges you get. HMC's carnitas were not bad—-after I added salt. But the day I had them, there was no citrus tang, sweet flavoring, or discernible other spices. Though the meat was nicely fatty, their carnitas tasted a little like plain boiled pork.

Also on the menu are made-to-order breakfast tacos with egg plus one ingredient (potato, bacon, sausage, chorizo, or beans), served all day for $1.25 each. Tacos with migas or machacado are $1.50 each. Breakfast plates range from $3.95 to $6.95. The classic Tex-Mex dishes are huevos rancheros, migas, huevos a la Mexicana, chorizo con huevo, and machacado. The most expensive options are huevos rancheros with steak or chuleta [de puerco], which means pork chop; the hybrid of chori-migas, for those diners who must combine their migas with the deliciously simple chorizo con huevo; and "gringo huevos." I have no idea what that last one means, but I think I can guess.

I believe that lunch tacos are $1.75 each if you eat in, but just $1.45 if you take them out. Classic choices include beef and chicken fajitas, fajitas rancheras, carnitas, carne guisada, chicharrones, picadillo, barbacoa, tripas, pastor, lengua, and carne asada. Some tacos cost more than $1.45, such as carne asada tacos ($1.50) and lengua ($2.00). Gorditas cost $3.00 each. Lunch specials are $5.25 and are served with the usual beans, rice, and tortillas. FYI, their Wednesday special is fajitas rancheras; Friday’s is chicken mole or picadillo. You can also order a plate anytime (for $5.95) of carne guisada, chicharrones, "enchiladas flautas," carnitas, or picadillo. They come with the usual sides plus guacamole. Plates of fajitas—-plain or rancheras, with grilled onions and bell peppers; carne asada; chuletas rancheras; tripas; and a few items like “gringo burritos” cost $6.96 each. For $7.25 you can get a plate with that delicious tongue, catfish ranchero, or chile relleno.

HMC offers flan and sopapillas, too, but who has room after loading up on carnes asadas? I’ll just have to hope that one day, I manage to fit them in.

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  1. This deserves a bump. I had some tacos from there today, and have to say that these beef fajitas are probably among the best I've ever had. Excellent marinade, and a deft hand with the grill, which I believe uses mesquite. Astonishingly flavourful (that tang!), not just your run-of-the-mill chopped beef. Also outstanding was the lengua, and the barbacoa was also pretty decent, better than most other renditions I've had in town thus far.

    I've seen a handful of requests from out-of-towners for good Tex-Mex that's not too far from downtown, and this fits the bill perfectly. Also a very inviting atmosphere for those intimidated by eastside joints. It should be recommended far more often (except I guess the caveat is that they're not open for dinner).

    1. Given the name, do they offer anything that is really "Habenerno" hot?

      2 Replies
      1. re: Chicago Wine Geek

        I only sampled tacos, so I'm not really qualified to answer that question. Except on the basis of their salsas -- they have a regular red and a hot (that you have to ask for). The hot version was pretty hot actually. Not as hot as other habanero hot sauces I've had, but sufficiently hot IMO.

        1. re: Chicago Wine Geek

          As Nab said, they have two salsas - ask for both. They are savory food salsas, not hot pepper extract. They are plenty hot for my taste.
          I carry around a bottle of El Yucateco green in my laptop bag if I REALLY want hot, but you want to use that stuff with care.

        2. This place is right around the corner from the house we just bought and I can't wait to try it. Question though, I drove by a few times at night and the place looked like it was hopping. What are their hours?

          3 Replies
          1. re: YaYa

            I have no idea where I got that whole bit about them not being open past lunch, but it seems that they're not necessarily pushing the dinner thing either (at least on weekdays).

            Here are their hours (taken from a Chronicle article):

            Sun-Mon, 7am-3pm;
            Tue-Thu, 7am-5pm;
            Fri-Sat, 7am-pm (not sure how late this averages)

            1. re: Nab

              That makes sense, I drove by on a Friday and Saturday. Probably open until "whenever." Thanks for the scoop. :)

              1. re: YaYa

                It's til 9 on Friday, I think the same for Sat.

          2. To add a bit about their breakfast plates. There is a dish called 'Roberto's Special' that is huevos ranchero's (with a spicy tomatillo sauce) and a small to medium portion of their beef fajitas. It is superb, in my opinion, and excellent for those of us that can't make up their minds.

            1. MPH thanks for such a thorough review!