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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.

http://www.habaneroswaltham.com/

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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.

              1. Habanero's new menu came out yesterday and it includes a lot of Jim's specialties!

                1 Reply
                1. re: hannahkempski

                  well that's great news! do try it and report back!

                2. We tried this place last night at about 6:30 and all the tables were full - we had a 4 adults plus a 3 year old and a baby seat and were asked to wait at the bar as there isn't really a place to wait in the front. When we got to the bar we were told we couldn't be at the bar due to MA law. We were asked to wait at an open two top across from the bar. Then another server told us he was seating someone at the table we were told to wait at. So back to the bar we went - ordered drinks (which took a long time considering the bar was empty) while I entertained the 3 year old in a quiet place away from the bar. My wife's margarita was ordered without salt, but appeared with salt which was replaced with a really sweet margarita. Second round was much better, so I ordered one without salt which arrived with salt but was balanced and strong. A couple of Widmer taps, Stella, Sam Adams and SA seasonal were offered on draft, and a couple of other crafts in bottles including Laguanitas IPA and Pretty Things Jack D'Or - all served in frozen glasses.

                  The friendly owner apologized about the waiting issues and ended up getting our table ready - a 4 top in the corner - a little cramped, but we made do. After being seated for a while, we had to ask for chips and salsa - the salsa was smoky, slightly salty, and had mild cilantro flavor - which I enjoyed more than anything else I ate. Food had potential but not consistent throughout - everyone liked their entrees, but the rice and beans (I asked for refried and received black) were pretty bland. I had the carnitas special served with quac, pico, and 3 handmade flour tortillas. My wife enjoyed her mole chicken which she said was spicy and not sweet like she has experienced at other places. We ordered the mini tacos for my 3 year old - asked for ground beef - and received chourico? and potatoes in deep fried four tortillas which seemed odd and a little greasy to me. The queso appetizer was an obvious uneven microwave reheat and was a bit thick - from a flour roux I assumed - served with flour tortilla chips similar to the mini taco shells.

                  Overall food and service was uneven, with lack of communication about waiting with children aggravating. May try again in the future, but I wouldn't show up with more than 4 people and probably won't take the kids again unless we go early enough to get seated right away.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: LStaff

                    bummer.we went late afternoon and i def got the feeling that the owner may be new to the restnt business, and not prepared for wkend crowds. but the many food errors are disturbing. hope you'll try it midweek sometime, though i wonder if it might be better to wait a few months, allow time for food and service to improve.

                  2. We went late-ish on Sat night (9:30), and also had mixed results. We were seated immediately but there was a booming 80s soundtrack. I was a Mexican Cuisine fan in the past so was looking forward to Jim Fahey's menu. The margaritas were great - I loved my watermelon one, though it didn't pack as much heat as I had been expecting. DH had a regular, and pronounced it good. Loved the smoky salsa that came with the chips. We ordered the chile relleno and the baja fish burrito special - both entrees came out lukewarm unfortunately. (we were feeling lazy so didn't flag down the busy server.) Decent portions of rice & beans - I had refried beans and they were good. sauce on the chile relleno was tasty. We'll try again in a few months, but probably on a weeknight!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Bluebell

                      I went to Habanero's back in December on a Saturday night. I was skeptical with all the great authentic Mexican places in Waltham, but whenever I passed by it looked busy, so I gave it a try. We experienced really slow service. When the bartender (we sat at the bar) did come to check in on us to tell us that our food was going to take just ten minutes more after thirty minutes, he apologized and said that they were slammed.

                      As far as the food, I was very explicit about being a vegetarian and getting vegetables in the chimichanga instead of chicken, yet my meal came with chicken. The bartender was again apologetic and whisked away the meal to be replaced - meanwhile, my DC and I shared his meal while waiting. The food was average, but the portions were generous.

                      Our bartender was nice enough to comp our meal after all the delays and kitchen mix-up but our meal was such a disaster that I don't plan on giving them another try. Their chips and salsa selection were great, though!

                    2. We took seats at the bar for dinner, service was attentive, good drinks, not much of a wait at all for our orders. The habanero con queso with fresh fried chips, excellent cheesy heat and my new favorite aperitivo. My SO got the tortilla salad with carne asada - tasty but I wasn't jumping up and down. I tried the habanero enchiladas which I liked, I would have gone with the mole on the side - it is more cinnamon than rich... crazy with the cinnamon. A positive nod to the cocktails and fresh guacamole, frajitas next time!