You know the molcajete. Even if you don’t always remember it by name, you know it by sight: the heavy, gray three-legged mortar — frequently outfitted with a craggy pig snout and ears — perhaps best known among urban dwellers as the tool used to prepare tableside guacamole.
But are you familiar with the “molcajete,” a family-style dish that uses the volcanic-rock mortar as both a serving bowl and a warming unit? To prepare this dish, cooks will heat a molcajete over a gas burner, or maybe bury it in glowing coals, while others in the kitchen will grill strips of steak, bell peppers, serrano peppers, shrimp, chicken, cactus paddles and countless other delicacies that will be layered into the bowl. As a final touch, the kitchen will pour red or green salsa — or both — into the molcajete so that the liquid roils, low and fearsome, like a Mexican version of a hot pot, except that the proteins are already cooked.
Freshness is key to a molcajete, says Mirna Montero-Alvarado, co-founder of Taqueria Habanero, the family-run business that in 2014 made 14th Street NW a destination for true Mexican tacos, sopes and huaraches. A molcajete dish, sometimes known as the molcajete mixto, must be prepared to order, its elements pulled straight from the grill. That goes for both ingredients and their stone vessel, a bowl so wickedly hot it must be served atop a separate holder so, presumably, it doesn’t burn through your table and right down to the center of the earth.
Patience is required whenever you order a molcajete mixto, available at Taqueria Habanero’s new location in College Park. It’ll take about 15 minutes or so for the cauldron to arrive, along with a small warmer of housemade corn tortillas. You can spend the waiting period marveling at what Montero-Alvarado and her husband, Dio Montero, have done with their second location in a sunny corner of a college-town strip center: The chef-owners have retained the best elements of their original taqueria while demanding more from themselves, their staff and even their customers. They have, in short, created a restaurant even better than the first one.
The owners have laid the same solid foundation in College Park as they did on 14th Street. The kitchen — under the direction of sous chef Arturo Montero, Dio Montero’s nephew — prepares its own salsas, including a special-request flamethrower that incorporates the taqueria’s namesake pepper. The habanero salsa coos with a sweet, tropical lilt before it stings you repeatedly on the lips, a masochistic delight for the mouth. Every day, a member of the prep team stands next to a towering bowl of fresh masa, pinching off small sections to roll into balls and press into impressively thin tortillas; the rounds serve as the corn-scented base for some of the finest tacos anywhere. You can tell a lot about a taqueria by the quality of its tortillas and salsas.
The improvements at College Park are obvious upon arrival. The location — big and airy, with plenty of distance between tables — is divided into two operations: a takeout counter and a main dining room. The latter space has adopted a colorful Day of the Dead theme, complete with cartoon skeletons on the wall, one of which dances with such verve that she seems to catapult her femur bones into the air. Sometimes managers stream “Coco” on a flat-screen TV in the corner, as if to reinforce the connection between their taqueria and love everlasting.
Speaking of which, the tacos that you love in Washington are the same ones you’ll find in College Park, each swaddled in a twin layer of tortillas, which are splotchy with char from their brief encounter with a flat-top. All my favorites — beef tongue (lengua), fried pork (carnitas), chicken and sausage marinated in chipotle salsa (tinga poblana), sausage (chorizo) — have survived the trip to Maryland without depreciation. The options have even expanded with a trio of “tacos al Yucatan,” in which deveined shrimp share a tortilla with strips of cactus paddles (nopales) and melted Chihuahua cheese, a combination that pulls off a rare feat: a bite that is both clean and buttery.
Should you catch Taqueria Habanero on the right day, you can also sink your teeth into a special of grasshopper tacos, a snack that Dio Montero used to prepare at Oyamel when he was a cook at the Penn Quarter restaurant. With all due respect to José Andrés, Montero’s chapulín tacos surpass his mentor’s; Montero and his team pair the crispy little buggers with pickled onions, browned onions, guacamole and a chipotle-lime-and-chile marinade that elevates the taco beyond a witless dare and into the realm of Mexican delicacy. I’m not kidding.
I ate all across the College Park menu, fully expecting that a dish or two might suffer from indifference as the founders now split their time between two restaurants. I unearthed, arguably, two such plates, including a papas con mole appetizer in which the house-cut fries had the texture of potatoes that were boiled, not fried. Far more often, however, I encountered a kitchen energized by its mission to expand the Habanero brand. The mixed seafood ceviches tend to be baroque but pleasurable in their sauciness. The guacamole, prepared tableside here, is a show that can be customized to fit your tastes. Don’t miss it.
The stone bowl used for your tableside guac may be forced into double duty with the molcajete mixto, a deceptively simple preparation. It’s basically a build-your-own-taco bar right at your table. You’ll be tempted to dig immediately into the blistered and charred goodies draped over your hot bowl, but there are pleasures for those who wait. The longer the carne asada, chorizo and chicken lounge in the tomatillo-based sauce at the bottom of the molcajete, the more they release their juices into the salsa, which in time becomes this swirl of natural and man-made deliciousness. It’s a sauce that improves everything it touches.
A couple of years ago, when author and TV personality Pati Jinich sampled a molcajete mixto at a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, a historic city in the central Mexican highlands, she made a prediction.
“This is going to be the next big thing,” Jinich said on her show. “Who is going to be making this in the U.S.? You’re going to be really successful.”
Taqueria Habanero in College Park, I believe she’s talking about you.
8145 Baltimore Ave., College Park, Md., 240-241-4486; habanerocp.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: College Park, with a 1.5-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $6 to $15 for salads and appetizers; $2.50 to $45 for tacos, tortas, entrees and more.