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Feb 12, 2012 10:28 PM

Habanero's: Mixed-Response Mexican in Waltham

Ate at Habanero's yesterday in Waltham. Jim Fahey( long the chef of Cambridge's Mexican Cuisine, Boston's first Diana Kennedy- inspired Mexican restaurant) was in the kitchen, having joined Habanero's in October ( after being out of the state for a few years.) The room is small and very casual feeling, w/ TV bar, high tops and regular tables and banquettes,2 walls of windows at the corner of Moody and High Street. I got the impression that maybe the owner is not knowledgeable about the food, but is happy that he just lucked out getting Jim on board. Said friendly owner works hard greeting, seating guests and checking on everyone's well being.

Food quality varied from excellent to disappointing. The regular menu is alot of standards with a bit of more authentic variety, and there is a sheet of daily specials with more unusual offerings.The dishes that would lure us to hike over there are the tostadas and the table salsa. The former made for a hefty plate of perfection. We chose two varieties. Small ,quality corn tortillas were griddled near crispy, topped with melted cheese, spread w/ refried beans, and finished with carne asada or carnitas. Finally- good carnitas- not all overcooked, goopy and greasy greasy greasy. These were braised in an orange juice chile marinade that you can taste. The carne asada was moist, medium rare and replete with wood fired flavor. Aside from their deliciousness, $7.50 for three very generously topped tortillas- was the best bargain in recent memory. The complementary salsa and chips were about a katrillion times better than others i have had in boston; thick with spicy complex layers of flavor with plenty of fire- grilled chiles and chipotle.

I was hoping the chicken tortilla soup would be like Chef Fahey's terrific Mexican Cuisine(MC) version (we used to get this take out) but the broth was just a simple chicken stock . Maybe he just hadn't had a chance to make the complex base, but regardless, My Love was very happy with this soup. The tuna tacos were not at all like those at East Coast Grill(ECG). I was surprised that they had excellent home made flour tortillas as their base but that those were topped with a bunch of tiny pieces of tuna that had been griddle-fried (like gyro filling) and then over- dressed with a chipotle tartar sauce. Maybe it would have worked with less sauce, but the sight of all those tuna tidbits, rather than slices of grilled rare tuna, was most disappointing. Mahi mahi with sauces was unfortunately the only bad fish we've been served in memory, and we returned it. Jim does a number of good authentic sauces- particularly the walnut cream sauce with pomegranate seeds (FINally a chef who knows how to make the delicate sauce which suffers so greatly with versions that are too sweet and heavy.) Like at MC, protein portions are small and each entree has generous portions of rice and beans (good but nowhere near the ecstasy of those at ECG.) This was the way at MC as well; maybe in their student- top heavy location, chef and owner feel that they can't get the prices they would need to provide bigger protein portions.(Iirc, entree platters were in the $teens.) The Red Sangria was oddly floral but O.K. (not cloyingly sweet.)

If this spot were in my neighborhood, those tostadas would be a weekly pleasure for us. I know that it can take a new chef awhile to get the new or retrained support staff s/he needs to produce what s/he wants . I hope that if Jim stays at Habanero's, he can get food quality up to his potential.

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  1. I used to frequent the Forest Cafe and was pleased to hear that Jim Fahey was at Habernero's. The first time I went I had cheese enchiladas with mole which had been my favorite dish at the Forest. It was very good, better than I remembered. My DC had cheese enchiladas with green sauce that she enjoyed. We really enjoyed the flan. The second time I tried the chile relleno. It was okay. My DC had a shrimp quesadilla that he enjoyed. I work nearby and will try other dishes. At least I know I can get the cheese enchiladas with mole which makes me happy.

    1. Very helpful posts, oc and frond. I enjoyed Jim's food at the Forest Cafe and will have to get there to try the specials menu.

      1. Thanks for the review OC. My favorite things about Fahey at Forest Cafe were his sauces. His pumpkin seed sauce and mole were outstanding and I haven't found these at his more recent efforts (e.g. the Tacqueria on Cypress). Anything like these on the radar at Habanero?

        5 Replies
        1. re: gourmaniac

          Completely agree about the sauces forte at MC. We asked to taste a few of his sauces at H. The walnut one i mentioned was sublime, his mole negro was odd to me but MyLove liked it alot. We also loved his pipian verde at MC and certainly would have ordered it the other night had it been on the menu. I bet it will be on some specials menu.

          I tell you, that salsa was so great, he could just heat that up and serve it on anything and i'd be happy!

          (Forgot to mention- our service was not slow.)

          1. re: opinionatedchef

            I recall he would have grilled fish or meat with that pipian verde and it would be delicious. Heck, I'd have eaten grilled styrofoam takeout container with that sauce on it were it not for the carcinogens.

            1. re: gourmaniac

              agreed. it's pretty easy to make a quick proximity. email me via my profile pg.if you want that info. (i do alot of mexican cooking).

            2. re: opinionatedchef

              my only Fahey experience was a short-lived taco place across from Brookline HS which was open maybe a year tops. incredible mole's tho. the Pipian which is occasinally on menu at Rancho Grande in providence is to die for (are we allowed to talk about other cities?)

              1. re: ix9

                if you went on and on about prov.(the so. new eng. board), the mods would likely remove or move your post but just to mention it while talking about boston- is o.k., iirc. I'm appreciative though!

                so hopefully you'll try H's and let us know how it is for you.

          2. I've been both for lunch and dinner. Bartender at lunch was friendly and made a solid margarita, and the chips and salsa variety were a treat. Quesadilla was servicable. Went back for dinner. Again, prices were reasonable and food was better than a lot of chains, but service was unbelievably slow.

            1 Reply
            1. re: carneyvore

              The three times I've been there the service has been fine. Once was for lunch and twice for dinner including one Saturday night.

            2. I thought his cooking at Forest was decent, but not worth jumping up and down over.