Winning Appetizers And More At Eastside Latin Eatery
If you heard or saw a Bigfoot-sized figure shaking the sidewalks of Greektown a few Sundays ago, you can relax. That was me, coming out of Habanero Grill (4701 Eastern Ave.,  342-0937), a new Salvadoran/Tex-Mex restaurant located doors away from the city’s favorite Greek restaurants, bakeries, and Formica-floored, smoke-filled coffee shops. This isn’t exactly a signal moment of cultural usurpation—Habanero takes over the space sadly vacated by the waist-expanding pleasures of the extremely non-Hellenistic ShamDanai’s Chicken-n-Waffle House. The interior here is still plain and homely, and the place, based on a couple of visits, is feeling a bit lonesome for patrons, too.
And a trip to Habanero Grill is absolutely worthwhile; this is exactly the kind of independent, family-owned operation that citizens ought to get out and support. Go when you’re hungry or on the “free day” of your new autumn eating regimen. The portions here are plate-breaking, and the basic materials—cheese, lard, and starch—top most any list of dietary no-nos. It’s great cold-weather food.
The menu divides nearly evenly between Tex-Mex and Salvadoran cuisine: a full array of budget-priced combination platters, chimichangas, enchiladas, flautas, burritos, and slightly more pricey entrées built around Salvadoran steak, honey-roasted chicken, and beef tongue. Habanero serves a plantain-lovers breakfast (I’m curious about the eggs Benedict with habanero hollandaise sauce), and lunch, too. It serves everything but liquor, beer, and wine, which might partly account for the lack of excited patronage
We had our best luck at Habanero with appetizers. The tamal de elote con crema ($2.50) is my new favorite thing. Served huskless, this is a perfectly simple and wholly delectable thing, composed practically entirely of sweet corn and cornmeal and accompanied by a monkey dish filled with cool, bone-white crema, a fatty cream with a sour-cream tang. Spoon some on and go to town. This tamal can be ordered either steamed or fried. As always, fried is better. Also good: the tamal de gallina ($2), a meltingly delicious assemblage of cornmeal and hen meat glued together with yellow cheese.
Yuca con chiccharones ($7.95) features those crackling-good cubes of fat-on tasty pork interposed with slices of yuca (aka cassava)—that snappy, carb-rich pre-Columbian staple that has yet to yield up much pleasure to me, except when it’s fried into salty chips. The pork and yuca are served with a crunchy, creamy Salvadoran coleslaw. Habanero’s very creamy and fresh-tasting guacamole ($5.99), served handsomely inside a delicate shell-shaped tostada, benefits from a light touch on the cilantro. The thin and crispy chips that accompany complimentary salsa, which here has the roasted flavor of ancho peppers, taste like they’re made fresh daily on premises.
From the Tex-Mex menu we chose the burrito Tijuana ($9.45), a mammoth flour tortilla stuffed with tender grilled steak (chicken is an option) and smothered but good with cheese and a chunky ranchero sauce that neatly balanced out its tomato and chile flavors. The big burrito’s insides, meat and black beans, were pleasantly sturdy, absent the soupiness that afflicts so many specimens. Accompanying this were training-table portions of creamy black beans, fluffy rice, sour cream, and guacamole. All in all, Habanero’s Tex-Mex portfolio is in good order
The Salvadoran entrées offered relatively mixed pleasures. Although its skin was succulent and pleasure-giving, the interior meat of a honey-roasted half chicken ($10.95) was too dry, lacking the bite-by-bite rewards of good rotisserie chicken. A plain-spoken pan-fried whole trout ($10.95) wanted just a little culinary drama to wake it up; it just kind of lies there. However, in defense of unadulterated, frill-less cuisine is Habanero’s carne asada, a simple grilling of juicy and spicy marinated skirt steak accompanied by mounds of refried beans and rice. Nothing fancy, just good food on a fork.
On the whole, I liked Habanero and wish I had more diners with me on a visit. (I wish I’d smuggled in some hooch, too.) I’m curious about the fish tacos, the sautéed shrimp with habanero butter, the ceviche that’s served with corn-on-the-cob and sweet potatoes, and, particularly, the mariscada habanera, the restaurant’s entrée-priced ($15.95) seafood soup. I’m intrigued, too, by the tongue entrées and soup of tripe and cows’ feet—but I’ve put them further down on my list of things to try on my next Habanero visit.