Clifton's Gaslight district is a melting pot of world cuisines: Italian bistros, trendy Mediterranean eateries and several Indian places. But don't think you've had one too many imported brews at Uno's when you step outside and see two burrito places within the same block: You're not imagining things. Habañero, the newest kid on the block -- just down from Burrito Joe's -- opened nearly three months ago. It is distinct enough from its neighbor to merit a try.
Mexican, however, is not the proper classification for Habañero. Unlike Burrito Joe's, Habañero doesn't serve traditional Mexican fare, such as refried beans, Spanish rice or grilled fajitas. Instead, expect to find flavors ranging from sweet and fruity to fire-roasted and smoky; from pineapples and plantains to chipotle peppers. Habañero combines various meats (steak, pork, chicken) or seafood (fried perch) with bean and rice mixtures and homemade salsas to create what it bills as Latin-American fare.
As with neighboring establishments, guests can expect a casual atmosphere here. Patrons order at the counter and watch their meals being created by friendly, cheerful staff, then seat themselves in the simply decorated dining room lined with wooden booths and tables. Another nice touch is the selection of beers to wash down the hot sauce, including Dos Equis, Corona and Negro Modelo ($3), or the local favorite from the BarrelHouse on tap ($2.75.)
Habañero's chef Max Monks (formerly of Palomino Euro Bistro) makes some unusual selections to create an eclectic, yet simple, menu
We began our order with the salsa sampler ($3.95), a basket of homemade tortilla chips and deep-fried plantain chips, served with our choice of three homemade salsas. We liked the sweet, tangy taste of the Corn and Green Chili Salsa, as well as the smoky Fire-Roasted Chipotle salsa best. The salsas seemed to taste best with the tortilla chips, while the plantains became more of a novelty.
I was taken in by the description of the "Burrito of the Week," ($6.50) a Chicken and Black Bean. The chicken was blackened and shredded or pulled, then mixed with the beans and rice, and topped with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and mild sauce. I also asked for sour cream and guacamole on the side. The huge burrito smelled wonderful, but needed a more flavorful salsa to overcome the bland rice and black bean mixture, which melded together once stuffed inside the steamed tortilla.
My husband's choice, the Calypso Chicken burrito, ($6.75), was a sweet and sour mix described as tangerine ginger chicken, pinto beans, sweet plantain rice and pineapple almond salsa. Although he thought the burrito was tasty, he was disappointed with amount of almonds and the pineapple flavor that overpowered the chicken, beans and rice.
Had I been more daring, I would have ordered one of the remaining three burritos on the menu. The Chuba Cabre ($6.50), the one vegetarian burrito offered on the menu is described as a combination of cinnamon roasted pumpkin, butternut and acorn squash with pinto beans, rice and an apple and green chili salsa. Although we didn't choose this one on our visit, friends we encountered there enthusiastically recommended it. The "Mad Max" ($6.75) was another interesting combination: fried perch, pinto beans, white rice, shredded cabbage and a white sauce. The Arroyo Hondo ($6.95) features spiced flank steak and mint caramelized shallot salsa.
With its unusual mix of salsas and ingredients, Habañero stands apart from its Clifton neighbors. Guests can boldly try the hottest hot sauces and salsas, knowing a cooling chocolate chip cone from Graeter's is just a few doors away. ©
Go: 358 Ludlow Ave. Clifton
Hours: 11 a.m.--11 p.m., everyday.
Payment: Major credit cards accepted
Vegetarian Friendliness: "Chuba Cabre" or create-your-own burrito or taco minus the meat.
Other: All items available for carry-out. Free parking.