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Hispanic Expansion 

Habanero's brings good--if slightly bland--Mexican food to the foothills masses

It's been interesting, watching real Mexican food break out of South Tucson and gradually creep outward and finally up into the foothills. Sort of like buffelgrass, only good.

Habanero's Fresh Mexican Grill, at Sunrise Drive and Kolb Road, is part of the phenomenon. It's no Pico de Gallo--nor is it the surprisingly good Taquito Mio (Swan and Grant roads; see "Charbroiled Bliss," Chow, Jan. 11)--but it provides a decent alternative to fast food and conserves untold fossil fuel by saving foothillers the long, long drive to the barrios. The tortillas don't seem handmade; most dishes are a little bland, and the prices are high, but, hey, so's the rent.

I went the first time for lunch with Leslie, a friend from work. We almost missed it, cruising east on Sunrise, because the place is small--it's a taqueria, basically--and the signage is minimal. Business was brisk, though--clearly, people in the area know it's there. (It's in the front of a gray strip mall dominated by Ventana Tires, next to Ventana Cleaners, a business that takes an imperial view of close-in parking.)

After I explained the deal to Leslie about eating on the Weekly's dime--you aren't required to stuff yourself, but you do have to taste as many things as possible--she ordered the guacamole appetizer ($4.99) and the shrimp enchilada special ($9.99). I went for the tortilla soup ($3.75, plus $1.99 for avocado and sour cream) and two fish tacos ($2.50 each).

Both appetizers were good, but not great. Tortilla soup is one of my favorites, and this came in a pretty bowl and was full of perfectly dried tortilla strips and yummy, melting cheese that was a blast to eat. (The importance of the play value of food is greatly underrated, IMHO.) The broth, however, was a bit salty for my taste. This is a common fault of soup--even the Eclectic Café's otherwise fantastic casuela is usually oversalted. I think the problem arises from the difference between tasting and eating. The cook tastes the broth, and since it's just a thin liquid, it doesn't seem to be quite enough, somehow, so she adds salt. The person who eats the soup, however, doesn't want or need a whole bowl of something oversalted.

Leslie's guacamole suffered from the opposite fault, that of being too bland. The avocado was fresh and ripe--it just needed garlic. A big spoonful of salsa livened it up.

The mahi-mahi in my fish tacos was perfectly seasoned and grilled. The tortillas, however, came straight out of the fridge. Hot fish, cold tortilla--nope. Leslie loved, loved, loved the shrimp enchiladas ("sautéed shrimp and mushrooms topped with a special white cream sauce and a blend of cheeses and sour cream"). She remarked that it got better as she ate, and, further, that the flavor was so good, they could have left out the shrimp, and it still would have been delicious. A shrimp dish that would work without the shrimp--that's something. As for the sides, she found the beans unimpressive, the rice excellent.

My second visit to Habanero's--it's "Habaneros" in the phonebook, but apostrophe use is rapidly approaching complete randomness, so who cares?--was similar to the first. I stopped by to pick up takeout one night after work and ordered the carne asada special ($7.99), the shrimp taco special ($9.99), the grilled chicken salad (also a special, $6.99) and grilled jumbo Mexican scallions ($3.99) as an appetizer. The place, which is pretty and comfortable, was quietly busy, with customers fairly evenly divided between to-go and eat-in. (Habanero's has an attractive little patio, and it was a beautiful spring evening.) This time, I noticed that the place fields a nice selection of Mexican bottled beers.

At home, we judged the carne tasty but a little tough, the chicken perfectly grilled and the shrimp taco flavorful (although the bits of bacon could have been a bit more done). The guacamole that came with the tacos was once again fresh but bland, and none of the salsas had much heat. They probably play better that way in the foothills, but Ed, his son, Nate, and I agreed that they could have used some, well, habanero.

The scallions, though, were absolutely splendid. My husband adores grilled scallions, and these giant ones--fat enough to still be slightly crisp inside--were the best we've ever had.

All in all, Habanero's serves up fresh, well-cooked Mexican food that's been dialed back a notch to appeal to its customer base. If I lived nearby, I'd be back. I may be back anyway for those scallions.

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