By Aja Finger
COLLEGE PARK — A Columbia Heights favorite has expanded, bringing bold, fresh, “99 percent authentic” Mexican flavors to the county.
Taqueria Habanero is known for their inspired array of Pueblan staples and other Mexican favorites. Motivated to meet their restaurant’s growing demand, owners Mirna and Dio Montero opened in College Park along Baltimore Avenue in December 2018. This location has two entrances, a dine-in area and a separate to-go section for customers in a hurry.
When you walk into Taqueria Habanero, you are greeted by colorful Calavera (sugar skull) murals, and warm, friendly staff.
The menu at the College Park location offers a bit more of a variety than the Washington, D.C. location to accommodate the more eclectic tastes of the University Park demographic.
Of course, classic dishes such as cheesy quesadillas, tacos al pastor on fresh tortillas and house-made guacamole are still available. However, Chef William Martinez introduced new, creative dishes such as the Tacos al Yucatan, three grilled shrimp tacos topped with cheese fondue, pico de gallo and grilled cactus, to the menu.
Unfortunately, the tacos here do not come with sides, but if you are really hungry, or splitting with friends, the staff suggests you try a true plato fuerte- the Molcajete.
This $45 mammoth includes nopales, grilled bell peppers, marinated chicken, juicy shrimp, Mexican pork sausage, steak and creamy queso fresco drizzled with a smoky green salsa, served in a traditional stone Molcajete dish. A true feast!
The menu has something for everyone: vegetarian, gluten-free or lactose-intolerant. With so many options, it was hard to choose what to try. On this first exploratory trip, I started with the vegetarian memelas, and crispy chicken tinga flautas.
I had never tried a memela, but at only $2.50 each, why not? I now know memelas are the perfect thing to order when you come to the restaurant ravenous, and you need something quick to eat.
The memelas are very similar to sopes. They both include a fresh thick corn tortilla, topped with smooth black bean puree, housemade tomatillo salsa and salsa roja, diced onions, crumbled queso fresco and a sprinkle of fresh cilantro. The sopes come with an additional protein on top.
After satiating my immediate hunger, the flautas came seamlessly afterward. The flautas come dressed in red and green salsa, so don’t be afraid to get your fingers a little messy picking them up. Despite being covered in sauce, the crunchy corn tortilla remained crisp, and the smoky flavors of the chipotle marinated Chicken Tinga still shined through. They have a little spicy kick, but nothing to be too concerned about.
You can’t come to a place with Taqueria in the name, and not try the tacos. These definitely lived up to the hype. Corn tortillas are controversial because often times, they crumble quickly or can be rubbery. These shells were warm, and firm enough to not get soggy from the filling, but soft enough to take an easy bite. My guest and I ordered an array of classic and specialty tacos. On the first plate, tender barbacoa, juicy grilled steak, and jumbo shrimp with avocado. The barbacoa goat meat had been cooked slowly over a fire, which not only intensified its flavor, but also created crispy pieces which added a delicious textural component. The shrimp taco not only had large whole shrimp, but also smaller chopped pieces to make sure you got some in every bite.
On the next plate we tried more of their vegetarian and pescetarian fare, with tacos de hongos made with portabella mushrooms, nopales (cactus), and salmon. The portabello mushrooms were sliced thin, then sauteed until smooth, so they weren’t chewy, as some people would expect. I wish the salmon taco came with more fish; the smoky grilled flavors are addictive, and complemented well by the creamy avocado. If you love bell peppers, you’ll love the nopales taco, packed full of fresh grilled cactus. All tacos are dressed with the traditional Mexican toppings, chopped cilantro and onion. Their homemade red and green salsas are brought to the table to add al gusto, to your taste. If you’re a heat-seeker, like me, you can request their spicier habanero salsa.
As the weather breaks, and spring emerges, what better way to celebrate than with a plate of tacos. At only $3.00 for classic flavors, and $3.50 for specialty tacos, you can fill up trying them all, or only try 2-3 and add one of their tasty sides. Although they don’t have their liquor license yet, this place is great for an afternoon gathering with friends. They’re open daily from, 11:00 am-10:00 pm Monday – Sunday, staying open an extra hour on Saturday to quell your late night taco cravings. The D.C. location is known for having a line out the door, so come check them out before word catches and you need a reservation!