Habanero Grill combines tastes from all over

EATS

Dining For $25 Or Less

April 13, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After years of toiling in big restaurants such as Chevy's in Annapolis and the Tex Mex Grill in the Inner Harbor, business partners Oscar Mendez and Edgar Sorto have opened a little place of their own.

This charming little restaurant in the heart of Greektown serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The service is friendly, the food arrives quickly, the prices are bargain-basement cheap and the setting is unassuming and relaxing. The owners are in the process of obtaining a beer and wine license, they say.

The menu at Habanero Grill wanders around the globe, stopping in Peru for ceviche mixto ($9.95), a cold marinated dish of calamari, shrimp and fish; and El Salvador for camarones entomatadas ($11.95), shrimp in a tomato and wine sauce.

The restaurant also serves fajitas, tacos, chimichangas and other Tex-Mex stalwarts. Breakfast includes huevos rancheros, as well as American dishes such as pancakes and waffles.

With so much going for this young restaurant, I wish I could report that the food just blew me away. But it didn't. While there were some high points to the meal, particularly the corny, light-as-air tortillas and the pupusas stuffed with a smoky mix of beans and cheese, there were problems as well.

An entree of grilled fish ($11.95) was so dry that it was almost inedible. To our waitress' credit, she handled the situation exactly right. She saw that I had barely touched the meal and asked whether there was a problem. When I voiced my concern, she immediately took the meal off our tab and made a point of telling the kitchen what was wrong.

If that had been the only overcooked dish, I would have been more forgiving. But the chicken fajitas ($11.95) had the same fate. The components arrived with plenty of sizzling fanfare: an iron skillet held chicken strips, peppers and onions, as well as compartments filled with seasoned rice, guacamole, refried beans, lettuce, tomato and sour cream. But the chicken had clearly been cooked in advance, and all that sizzling just made it chewy.

The sides and appetizers were the best things about our meal, which got off to a promising start with a bowl of still-warm, crispy and only slightly salty tortilla chips, accompanied by a bowl of earthy, richly flavored salsa.

The good news continued with appetizers in a generous combination platter ($10.99) that included nachos, a tamale, a quartered quesadilla and the pupusa.

The tamale was soft and rich, bursting with corn flavor, and the pupusa, though greasy, was immensely satisfying. Guacamole was chunky and fresh-tasting.

But the nachos, coated with cheese and large chunks of chicken, had grown soggy, and the quesadillas, filled with a similar mix of chicken and cheese, were unexciting. The chicken in every dish had been coated with a sweet marinade, similar to teriyaki, that seemed like a mismatch for the restaurant.

The side dishes were the most satisfying. The fish came with a salty, oily melange of sauteed vegetables, including sweet, pale green wedges of potato-like choyote squash, as well as a lettuce and tomato salad splashed with a refreshing and very tart vinegar dressing. Warm, puffy, feather-light tortillas boasted a rich, corn flavor. The fajitas came with creamy refried beans and deliciously seasoned rice.

The dessert roster, which changes, included flan and banana cake during my visit. The banana cake, which had a mild, homey flavor, had been warmed. This was a nice touch, but the warming seemed to suck the moisture from the dessert. The sweet disk of flan was sweet and silky, but my dining companion, a self-described flan snob, said she'd had better.

Habanero Grill has a lot going for it, in particular the enthusiasm of its owners, who are determined to bring Mexican and Salvadoran fare to a neighborhood where everybody around them is dishing out souvlakis and moussaka. If they can work out a few glitches in the kitchen, they are likely to succeed.

Habanero Grill

Where:

4701 Eastern Ave., Baltimore

Call:

410-342-0937

Open:

Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards:

All major

Prices:

Appetizers $1.95-$10.99, entrees $7.95-$15.95

Food:

** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service:

*** (3 stars) Atmosphere:

** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*

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