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In Dining Reviews

The Wauwatosa location of Habanero's Mexican Kitchen is tucked into an unassuming strip mall.

In Dining Reviews

The bar is sleek and inviting and offers an array of tequilas.

In Dining Reviews

The decor is inviting and recalls a Mexican courtyard.

In Dining Reviews

The food is the star at Habanero's Mexican Kitchen.

Habanero's Mexican Kitchen is worth a visit


With so many great restaurants in and around Milwaukee and more opening all the time, it's hard to keep track of my "list."

You probably have a "list," too.

They are the places that you hear about, see advertisements about or simply drive by and say to yourself "I should eat there one of these days."

Currently, there are at least 46 of these places on my list.

It was 47 until a few weeks ago, when I confidently crossed Habanero's Mexican Kitchen off the "I should try it someday..." list and put it into the "I'll definitely go back there and tell people about it" category.

I'd been driving by the Wauwatosa location, 869 N. Mayfair Rd., for some time. From the outside, it's not a place that screams "Eat here!" It's located at the end of a small strip mall that houses a sub sandwich shop, a Kinko's, a store that sells exercise equipment and a couple other businesses.

I wanted to try it, particularly after seeing people enjoying sunshine and margaritas on the small deck on the north end of the building. With a few hours to kill on a recent Saturday afternoon, I decided to drop in.

Though I half expected something that was a slight step up from Chipotle or another quick burrito joint, I was immediately impressed. The interior is huge. with an impressively sleek bar area, and the place was decorated like a Mexican courtyard. The earth tones, tile and cool décor reminded me of my favorite Mexican restaurant in the world, Los Dos Molinos in Phoenix.

I've been fooled before by décor, so I decided to withhold judgment until the food came. Seconds after we were seated, a plate of thick, warm tortilla chips was placed on the table along with a jar of flavorful salsa, served warm.

The attendant, dressed all in black, left our side and the server appeared. The restaurant wasn't crowded at the time, but that situation often makes long wait times frustrating.

Not in this case. Everything was crisp. I decided to play it safe and order a combination platter. I went with a chicken burrito, ground beef taco and cheese and onion enchilada, served with rice and beans. That was one of the cheaper and "safer" selection on a menu where most dinner entrees range from $12 to $16.

The service was prompt. The food was hot and attractively presented and delicious. Drinks were refilled. The check came quickly. My first visit to Habanero's was a home run on all counts, right down to the funky décor in the restroom.

I had one slight reservation, though, and it had nothing to do with the restaurant. When I walked through the door, I was famished. Had they served me something close to cardboard covered with cheese, I probably wouldn't have complained. I kept thinking about an evening in college. Fried from studying for finals and perhaps tipsy from an adult beverage, I went to a free movie screening at the Union. I laughed and enjoyed myself thoroughly. When I saw the movie a year later on cable, I wondered what the hell I was thinking.

I had to try Habenero's again. I went back with my cousin Chris, a budding gourmet who has spent considerable time in Mexico. The atmosphere at dinner was lively, but welcoming. We started with the chips and salsa and ordered the guacamole, which is prepared tableside in a molcajete (stone mortar and pestle).

The guacamole was fresh and delicious, but I found the version at The Cheesecake Factory a bit more spicy and daring, though it did not come with the tableside preparation.

After playing it safe on my first visit, I decided to sample a monthly special and ordered the Enmoladas de Puerco -- Pueblan chocolate mole sauce and savory chunks of pork over three enmoladas (corn tortillas dipped in mole sauce) and sautéed with pico de gallo and cheese.

The lunch special was $8.95 and the dish was fabulous. I love to sample mole sauces, but they can differ greatly depending on the region / recipe. They can be too bitter, too sweet or simply bland. his version hit all the right notes. It was served with rice and I didn't have to worry about leftovers (though I didn't have room for flan afterward).

My dining partner thought about trying the El Parador, a signature dish with grilled jumbo shrimp and scallops served with melted cheese, chile de arbol sauce and rice and beans. But, he decided to play it safe and try a combination plate.

A stingy and somewhat snobbish critic of Mexican cuisine, he finished his lunch and declared that Habanero's rated "7.5 or 8 out of 10" and added that the food was "probably better than a lot of the mainstream places on the South Side."

I agreed with the assessment. Habanero's offers a good place for a quick lunch and a fun gathering spot for after work. Appetizers at the bar are free on Monday and Thursday and there are several drink specials and an impressive array of tequilas to order.

Habanero's Mexican Kitchen, which also has a location in Brown Deer (3900 E. Brown Deer Rd.), is locally owned and a great place to add to -- and cross off -- your list of places to visit.


Talkbacks

local | July 5, 2009 at 9:19 p.m. (report)

Comfortable, spacious dining areas at both locations...Brown Deer in particular. The guacamole, prepared tableside, is the best around. Habanero's menu has something for everyone.

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Aardvark | Sept. 25, 2008 at 10:29 a.m. (report)

jetkat-If you love mole, check out Riveria Maya in Bayview. They have something like 7 different ones. You can get a sampler with chips as an appetizer or get your enchiladas with any of them.

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BigEasy | Sept. 25, 2008 at 9:15 a.m. (report)

I agree that the food is good, but the salsa is sooooo watery it is ridiculous.

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High_Life_Man | Sept. 24, 2008 at 1:57 p.m. (report)

What was the name of the movie?

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jetkat | Sept. 24, 2008 at 10:28 a.m. (report)

I'll try it. I love Mole'. Another great 'burb place for Mole' is Tres Locos in Muskego. I found it to be better than Jalapeno Loco. Try it.

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