Because so many cooks at local taco joints — even cooks at a good one — pull their tortillas straight from a bag, I had to do a double-take when I walked past the griddle at Taqueria Habanero. A woman in a forest-green apron, her hair poking through the back of her ball cap, was forming corn masa into thin rounds and tossing each disc onto a sizzling flat-top.
I stood there for a minute, mesmerized as the tortillas ballooned and slowly turned golden, their surfaces dappled with brown griddle freckles. I felt like I was watching something foreign, as if hypnotized by Quechua women spinning wool in the Andes. But I was on 14th Street NW, on a stretch just outside Columbia Heights, where the beard-and-craft-beer crowd hasn’t yet obliterated the Latino complexion of the area.
Taqueria Habanero is located downwind from Red Derby, but it feels a million miles from that millennial playground of board games and canned beer. Sandwiched between a liquor store and (apparently) a billiards parlor, both of which look as inviting as scorpions, the taco shop opened in September with a mission to make everything from scratch. Save for the chorizo and bolillo rolls — the latter serves as the base for the kitchen’s mountainous tortas — Taqueria Habanero does just that.
The tortillas, huaraches, salsas and even shells for the crispy quesadillas: They’re all made in-house by chef and owner Dio Montero and his team. Montero treats the enterprise as if it were one step removed from the streets of his native Puebla. The ultra-compact menu runs only a few items long, with plenty of variation within the taco, huarache and quesadilla categories. It’s the kind of menu you might find at a stand on the fringes of a grand Mexican plaza, or in some roach coach hawking tacos to tourists.
Except Montero’s dishes don’t go down like street food. Top to bottom, his plates are prepared with the care of a home cook looking to impress visiting guests, starting with the tortilla base and culminating with a final drizzle of salsa. Montero is not reinventing Mexican cuisine for the hipster tribes who collect restaurant experiences like animal trophies. No, he’s channeling the fresh, authentic flavors of Mexico to give these eaters a baseline by which they can judge the freewheeling, chef-driven taquerias like Tico and Taco Bamba.
Start with the tacos, most garnished simply with diced onion and cilantro. The filling options run eight deep, supplemented with occasional specials, and each comes swaddled in a pair of tortillas hot off the griddle. I know, I know: I’ve been harping about a lack of house-made tortillas in Washington for years, sounding like a crazed street preacher with a bullhorn cranked to 10. But one taste of these tacos and you’ll understand. My zeal is not just about the fragrance of the tortilla, with its ephemeral aroma of hard field corn, but also about its texture, which is closer to polenta than to those woody rounds from a bag.
All the tacos are worth a try, save perhaps for the pollo, whose squares of breast meat are too dry, even with a barbarian application of salsa. The chicken in the tinga poblana taco, by contrast, is a mass of shredded meat slathered in a chipotle-based sauce; the bite supplies so much moisture that it renders the tabletop salsas unnecessary. Whatever your feelings about beef tongue, don’t bypass the lengua taco, whose cubed, livery filling is as lush and melting as foie gras. And if the kitchen has its fish tacos on special, order at least two of these flavor bombs, which detonate with more heat than your standard San Diego version.
A word of warning: The tacos are practically amuse-bouches. (Is it legal to invoke a French term in a taqueria review?) If famished, you might knock one down in two bites, especially the al pastor, which remains one of my favorites here despite the shop’s lack of a vertical rotisserie to grill the marinated pork. But I’m told such a machine is forthcoming, similar to the ones that Lebanese immigrants introduced to Puebla in the 1930s.
The best way to explore Montero’s lean, less-is-more salsas is to order a huarache, this crispy oval of masa stuffed with a thin layer of refried black bean paste. Along with your choice of meat, the huarache comes topped with avocado, jalapenos, cheese, onions, cilantro and sauteed strips of cartilage-like cactus paddles. This overflowing masa platter provides the perfect canvas for experimentation: Try one bite with the tart, soothing tomatillo-avocado salsa and another with the liquidy barn-burner of a salsa built from Puebla’s gift to the world (poblano peppers, both fresh and ancho). But go easy on the namesake habanero condiment, a feisty, no-apologies salsa whose hint of orange juice cannot begin to tame its temper.
You can skip the tortas, a line of big bready sandwiches on semi-fresh rolls, without experiencing too much FOMO anxiety. I’m tempted to say the same for the crispy quesadillas, these half-moons that practically ooze grease, except I love the cool, minty effect of the dish’s wormseed leaves.
The most composed dish at Taqueria Habanero is the enchilada platter, this neat line of folded tortillas concealing succulent and saucy chicken. Topped with your choice of red or green salsa (go green!) and garnished with an ’80s-era zig-zag of crema, the enchiladas pair exceptionally well with a fruity aqua fresca, the closest thing to a craft cocktail in this alcohol-free zone.
Want to know one reason these enchiladas rock? That’s right: the pliant, aromatic tortillas, made fresh daily by the dedicated cooks at Taqueria Habanero.
3710 14th St. NW. 202-722-7700.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro station: Georgia Avenue-Petworth, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Tacos and entrees, $2.50-$10.