Taqueria Habanero: A Brunch From the Streets of Puebla, Mexico

If you’ve read my profile then you know I’m picky about tacos. Great, reasonably-priced tacos are hard to come by in D.C. They’re not bad, they’re just not the kind of tacos this Southern Californian was raised on. And, it’s hard to find tacos reminiscent of those I’ve eaten in Mexico. But, with two locations in D.C. and College Park, Maryland, Taqueria Habanero has never failed me. Their slogan is “99% Mexican”, which has always left me scratching my head in confusion. Recently, I asked about the missing 1%. It’s Mexico! We’re not in Mexico, which they claim is what makes Taqueria Habanero only 99% Mexican, not 100%. Hell, I’ll take the 99%. It’s the closest I can get to home.

To-go brunch from Taqueria Habanero in Columbia Heights, DC.

Owned by couple Dio Montero (former cook at Oyamel by José Andrés) and Mirna Alvarado-Montero, who both emigrated from Puebla, Mexico, over 20 years ago, Taqueria Habanero serves authentic cultural dishes that are made — by hand — using only the freshest ingredients. That means each sauce, each marinade, and each tortilla that graces your lips was made in that restaurant.

Tortillas are made in-house, right in front of your eyes, using mostly corn masa. Flower tortilla is used only for burritos. This is exactly what you would expect to find at taquerias and street carts in Los Angeles and in Mexico. Except DC Brau IPAs are on this menu.

Besides the fresh ingredients, what I enjoy most about the dishes at Taqueria Habanero is their simplicity. Montero focuses on flavor and authenticity, rather than bells and whistles. You’re not going to find any fusion dishes here — just straight-up Mexican cuisine. Tacos are topped with cilantro, onion, radish, and the occasional salsa. You’ll have to look elsewhere for drizzled smoked aioli, a bottle of Sriracha, or some sort of carne asada quinoa poke bowl (though I love the first two dearly, and I would definitely try the third).

Complimentary house-made tortilla chips and salsa at Taqueria Habanero.

Every meal comes with house-made corn tortilla chips and two types of salsa. The green salsa is a blend of avocado, cilantro, onion, garlic, Serrano pepper, and tomatillo. The red salsa is a blend of tomato, Chile de árbol, cilantro, onion, and garlic. I enjoy both salsas for different reasons, so my approach is to alternate between the two. One chip green, one chip red. I do lose track.

Bistec taco on the left; Taco al pastor on the right.
Carnitas taco from Taqueria Habanero.

I ordered one bistec (char-grilled beef) taco, one taco al pastor (marinated pork with pineapple,  combining Middle Eastern spices with those indigenous to central Mexico), and one carnitas (fried pork) taco. I’ve also tried the carne asada, chicken, and shrimp tacos — all also very delicious. Though, the bistec and al pastor are my favorites. Be warned, these tacos aren’t American-sized. They’re small and simple, with big flavor. You’ll need at least three of four to feel full — or add a couple sides like I do.

Let’s talk about their habanero salsa. It’s exactly what you would expect from a spot named Taqueria Habanero — a simple heat-forward salsa that’s not for the faint of heart. This ain’t Tapatío. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but once it sets in it packs a punch. Use this in moderation if you’re sensitive to heat. Keep some water nearby. I’m clearly on a war path to destroy my gastrointestinal system (see photo below — and send help). I never leave extra habanero salsa on the table. I always ask for a lid so I can take the rest home.

Taqueria Habanero’s habanero salsa and bistec taco.

I ordered one memela, a fried corn masa cake — thicker than a corn tortilla — topped with different fresh ingredients and eaten as a snack in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Memelas at Taqueria Habanero are topped with pureed black beans, house-made green and red sauce, diced onions, and queso fresco.

Memela from Taqueria Habanero.

I added a lengua (slow braised beef tongue) sope to my order. A sope is a traditional Mexican antojito (street food). Crunchy fried corn masa is topped with a protein, black beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, queso fresco, and crema fresca. It took me starting a food blog to finally face my fear of lengua! This was my first time trying it (as far as I know). I’ll eat all kinds of things, but for some reason beef tongue was where I drew the line. I was worried about the texture, which I’ve read can be pretty undesirable if it’s not cooked properly. Taqueria Habanero’s lengua was tender and tasted buttery, which makes sense because it’s over 70% fat. I enjoyed it!

Lengua sope from Taqueria Habanero.

Finally, I ordered a side of rice and beans, which was just okay. There are plenty of stand-outs on the menu, and to be honest, I would rather spend my dollars on more tacos. The rice and beans didn’t really add anything to this taco-heavy meal, but they’re a tasty accompaniment to Taqueria Habanero’s fajitas and carne asada meals.

Side of rice and beans from Taqueria Habanero.

Taqueria Habanero is one of my D.C. staples. When I’m feeling homesick and need some comfort food, this spot is up at the top of my list. They offer a rather large menu, including Oaxacan staples like huaraches, sopes, tortas, and entrees like molé and enchipotlados. Full transparency: I’m very taco-focused, so I haven’t explored much of the menu. I plan on changing that soon. Like, tomorrow.

My entire meal, which included 3 tacos, 1 memela, 1 sope, and a side of rice and beans cost me around $22 before tip. Much more than you’d pay in Los Angeles or Mexico, but the flavor and authenticity make it worth it in D.C.

Left to right: Bistec taco, taco al pastor, habanero sauce, rice, black beans, and memela from Habanero Taqueria.
Carnitas taco on the left; lengua sope on the right. From Taqueria Habanero.

I know what you’re thinking. But what about the vibe? The Taqueria Habanero location on 14th street was recently redecorated. They’ve created a dining environment that’s lively and vivid in color, with cultural touches in the glassware to stenciled detailing on the wall. I went home with a lot of design inspiration. If you’re looking for vibrance in your brunch ambiance, this a great way to go.

Patterned bathroom walls at Taqueria Habanero.

What about brunch booze? Taqueria Habanero’s COVID-19 carryout menu offers cocktails to-go, including several types of margaritas (house mezcal, habanero, hibiscus), sangria, and palomas. If you’re interested in making your own brunch libation try out our home-made honeydew lime agua fresca with cardamom and mint.

Taqueria Habanero is located at 3475 14th St NW, Washington, DC and has a second location at 8145 Baltimore Ave. Suite A. College Park, Maryland.

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