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Habanero Mexican Grill

September 27, 2009

Ask someone from the West Virginia Panhandle about Habanero Mexican Grill in Martinsburg at 100 N. Queen St. and the answer will probably include the word, "fresh."

Habanero's disclaimer states, "Everything made fresh, from scratch everyday. We have no freezer, no microwave and no can opener. We use no MSG. Just fresh and healthy, the way it should be."

I would add this: "And so, the food at Habanero is delicious." Habanero has a straightforward menu that is Mexican: burritos, tacos, salsa, taco salad, nachos, fajitas, empanadas. Within this cultural window, true culinary craftsmanship is expressed.

The restaurant is laid out cafeteria style. I went through a buffet line and chose what I wanted. The staff were exceptionally helpful and explained each item when I asked. I carried my food on a tray to my seat in the window.

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Before I visited Habanero, I asked the opinion of friends and students. After "fresh," the next most common words I heard were "chicken" and "salsa." So I selected a chicken burrito. The chicken was very fresh and plump. The flavor leapt to the forefront of the basic burrito ingredients -- flour tortilla stuffed with beans and rice, sour cream and cheese.

To accompany the burrito, I chose black beans, yellow rice, grated white and yellow cheese, sour cream and guacamole. That part was easy. Then I looked at the restaurant's four choices of salsa: fresh pico de gallo, (called Wimpy), zesty salsa verde, (called Normal), fiery orange salsa, (called Brave) and roasted habanero salsa (called Insane). Impossible to choose. I asked for all four.

I like hot food, both heated-up hot and spicy-hot. I worked my way up, first tasting the pico de gallo, a good, easy-going, tomato-cilantro-onion mixture. Then I sampled the salsa verde, a tart, green, tomatillo-based salsa. The orange salsa was hot and it definitely gave a kick to the burrito. But the roasted habanero was off-the-charts hot. The little, wrinkled, habanero pepper is grown extensively on the Yucatan peninsula, and it packs a wallop. I loved it.

Habanero peppers are among the hottest peppers on earth. The heat of peppers is measured in Scoville units -- named after a pharmacologist, Wilbur Scoville. Habanero peppers rate between 200,000 to 300,000 Scoville units. By comparison, pepperoncini rate 100 to 500 Scoville units and jalapenos rate 2,500 to 8,000. When eating habaneros, caution is necessary.

Eric Olmstead acted as our host. He helped serve food, worked the cash register and circulated through the room like a maitre d' in a fine dining establishment. He asked each patron if the food was to their liking and if they needed anything.

My friend Marie Birthstone ate with me; she said she was eating vegetarian. She was offered grilled tofu in place of meat in her burrito, but she chose fajita veggies. These included grilled mushrooms, onions and green peppers. (Scoville units for sweet bell peppers are virtually zero.) She said her burrito was extra good because it was moist with the vegetables and creamy with sour cream.

Marie noticed the photographs that ringed the room. Photographer Mary Jo Bennett had captured the colorful beauty of San Miguel de Allende. I noticed the colorful ceramic lizards that decorated the walls. Marie noticed that this was a Wi-Fi hotspot.

We added chips to our order, also universally recommended by my sources, and found them to be deep-fried, quartered corn tortillas. Very lightly salted, not at all greasy, perfectly fried, these chips were like everything else here, fresh and delicious. Guacamole was the perfect dip for them, but the different salsas were also good. My drink was aqua de Jamaica, made from hibiscus flowers. Soft drinks and iced tea were available as well as wine, beer, margaritas and sangrias.

I returned on Tuesday for the carnitas burrito and the chorizo taco. The burrito had an extremely generous portion of cubed pork. This carnitas was the best ever -- not stringy, not greasy, not dry. It was enhanced by a side of guacamole which was very fresh, very green and very good.

The chorizo taco was a disappointment. The taco was made with a flour tortilla and I prefer corn tortillas for tacos. The chorizo was not distinctive -- dry, low on flavor and not spicy -- although it, too, was a generous portion.

I was so happy with my carnitas burrito, I nearly forgot the apple empanada. Freshly made for me, it was served hot in aluminum foil. Inside the foil was fried dough, folded over and filled with tart cubes of apples. The whole dumpling was sprinkled with sugar. This simple treat, perfectly made, was the right dessert and, indeed, the only dessert offered at the restaurant.

The interior of the restaurant seated about 50 people. At lunch time in downtown Martinsburg, it was hopping and the noise level was high. Mexican music vied with the conversations of office workers, families and military personnel. The walls were painted bright burnt orange, the color of the Insane salsa. Dressed in black, the staff moved quickly and served with smiles.

Habanero's strong colors, bright flavors and attentive service made for a great experience.

Omni Vore is a pseudo-nym for a Herald-Mail freelance writer who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

Habanero Mexican Grill

5 stars

Food: 4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Service: 5 stars

Ambiance: 4 stars

Value: 5 stars

Address: 100 N. Queen St., Martinsburg, W.Va.

Phone: 304-596-5667

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sundays.

Web: http://www.habaneromexicangrill.com

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