Habanero’s Grill & Cantina
Habanero’s Grill & Cantina’s atypical approach works in downtown Monterey.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Sibling rivalry is nonexistent in Dennis Barwick’s family – his food and entertainment family, that is.
Habanero’s Grill and Cantina, which opened on Sept. 17, joins sister establishments Bellagio Pizzeria (404 Tyler St.) and Luxe Lounge (180 East Franklin St.), at the apex of a suddenly happening corner.
But does the Monterey Peninsula really need another Mexican restaurant? Maybe not. But owner-operator Barwick believes Habanero’s concept is the best fit for downtown. He describes it as a boutique Mexican restaurant with a great ambiance and authentic cuisine.
“Habanero’s is not just your run-of-the-mill West Coast Mexican restaurant,” he insists.
He’s got a point. Habanero’s is different. Since Bellagio and Habanero’s are separated only by a set of swinging doors, their menus are interchangeable – you can dig into sizzling fajitas while your friends devour a meat-frenzied Napoli pizza. Plus, the vegetarians in your party will approve of the salad bar and Tuscan veggie, Pisa, Varenna and Margarita pizzas next door. Thanks to its affiliation with Luxe (which looks like it’s having a harder time than his other businesses), the full bar is available anytime, and one of the best stocked in town with 60 tequilas. Hacienda-style décor brings the outdoors in: Floor-to-ceiling windows street-side, Diego Rivera knocks-offs on the walls, and flower-trimmed faux “balconies” define the large, open space.
Made using fresh ingredients (Seaside’s Camacho Produce is a vendor), the food is a cross-section of south-of-the-border fare, and the culinary team (made up of Pebble Beach Resorts and Forge in the Forest Restaurant alumni) has created a menu of recognizable dishes streaked with Habanero’s own flair.
Every meal starts off with a basket of freshly fried Technicolor tortilla chips served with a trio of housemade salsas – habanero, green and red. Ranging from fiery to mild, all three are tasty, but those with delicate taste buds beware, the habanero salsa will tip you over on the capsaicin scale.
The menu, while compact, is well-edited. There are less than 10 entrees and just as many appetizers, several of which are filling enough for a midday meal and small appetites.
The chicken tinga empanadas ($9.95) are a house favorite. Shredded chicken redolent with onions, tomatoes, and chipotle are wrapped in masa pastry, deep-fried and dusted with chile powder. Dipped in the accompanying sour cream and freshly-made guacamole, they are a promising prelude to any meal.
The quesadillas ($6.95), gooey Monterey Jack cheese sandwiched between nicely crisped housemade tortillas, make for a standard light and tasty lunch or another appetizer to share.
Just in case you forget who’s next door, the personal-sized Mexican pizza ($8.95) will remind you. Pesto sauce may seem an unlikely partner for black beans and carne asada, but the flavors meld in an exciting medley in your mouth.
Their entrée portions are big. The enchiladas tri-color ($14.95) comes with Spanish rice, your choice of refried or vegetarian black beans, and a selection of fillings. Traditionally, enchiladas tri-color is a representation of the Mexican flag’s green, white and red stripes.
In Habanero’s version, the first enchilada, filled with cumin – and chile-spiked carnitas, is smothered in a mild green sauce with just the right balance of tart (roasted tomatillos) and spice (jalapeños). Shrimp sautéed together with red and green peppers and onions is bundled into the white “stripe.” The sweetness of the cream corn sauce is a little strange at first, but as I take a second and third bite, I begin to enjoy its unusual flavor. Per the menu description, I expect the third, a chicken enchilada, to be covered in red ancho chile sauce. Dark and spicy, it tastes and looks like mole sauce instead. As a mole fan, I’m not complaining.
Don’t let the word “salad” fool you – the taco salad ($14.95) is not for the faint-hearted. The crispy flour tortilla bowl is layered with iceberg lettuce, fresh tomato salsa, green bell peppers, refried beans, and our order has generous chunks of carne asada tossed in. The vegetables are fresh and the tender steak pieces taste faintly of adobo seasoning and the grill. Topped with guacamole and sour cream, this entrée is robust.
Habanero’s also has a brunch menu with favorites like huevos rancheros ($10.99). Their breakfast burrito ($7.99) – scrambled eggs, cheese, and refried beans in a warm flour tortilla – is one of the best I’ve had in a while.
Their range of lunch specials represent another draw. Habanero’s rotating bargains range from chili verde to chicken mole ($5.99 to $10.99). On Taco Tuesdays, tacos a la carte are $2 all day – they’re not skimpy, with crispy taco shells loaded with your choice of beef or chicken, lettuce, and cotija cheese – and tequila shots are $3 and drinks are 2-for-1 from 5pm till closing. Their daily “arriba time” happy hour, meanwhile, offers three drink specials and appetizers at $3 from 3pm to 6pm.
The family-friendly venue also offers a kid’s menu for $5.95, and your niño can have anything from a mini quesadilla to a bean and cheese burrito, plus beans and rice and a soft drink.
So yes, the concept is unique and the food is tasty. The service could be mejor – something’s amiss when the busser is friendlier than the server – and pay attention to your check. Twice, I had to send mine back because of mistakes. But Habanero’s is certainly a strong option when you find yourself hankering for Mexican in downtown Monterey.