On our inaugural visit to Blue Habanero, one particular appetizer caught our eye: the Jalapeños Norteños. Gluttons for punishment, we yearned to get the party started with a bang, and what could be more explosive than cream cheese-stuffed hot peppers swaddled in crispy bacon. Of course, barbecue fanatics know this classic backyard delicacy by its nickname, Atomic Buffalo Turds (ABTs for short), and this version ($10) sang all the right notes: crunchy, creamy, smoky and spicy.
Diners have gotten pretty good at identifying the various genres of Mexican restaurants. There are the authentic joints that stick to tradition, the soul-soothing but timeworn temples of Tex-Mex, and the spiffy chef-driven mod-Mex bistros that blur the lines to delicious results. As evidenced by those ABTs, Blue Habanero, for better and for worse, doesn't neatly fit into any of those categories.
For starters, there's the setting, an architectural showpiece with a sad, sordid backstory. The building in Gordon Square is a regal relic of a restaurant that lasted one-tenth of the time it took to build the damn thing. Oddly, despite the myriad physical quirks of the space — back cushions mysteriously appear and vanish along the banquettes; seats at the bar diminish in leg room and, thus, comfort, the closer one sits to the door; the back slider leaks cold air like a sieve — a Mexican restaurant in the former home of Arcadian is not as incongruous a fit as one might assume.
Within the custom of dining out, the only transgression more invidious than charging for bread is putting a price tag on chips and salsa at a Mexican eatery. I'm less opposed to either practice when the product on the other side of that expense is exceptional, but the chips served here ($4) are thick, cold and off-the-shelf. They are strewn unceremoniously on a sheet pan with two salsas — one tomato-based, the other cream — that are fine but forgettable
To brighten up those leaden chips, consider tacking on an order of the guacamole ($5), a citrusy spread that is neither too salty nor too garlicky, allowing the tropical fruit to shine. Also worth the calories is the queso ($5), which is smooth, nutty and as satisfying as a hot bath. The next time I cross the million-dollar threshold, I intend to jazz that queso up with the chorizo add-on.
Two appetizers illustrate the challenge of affixing a label to Blue Habanero, one that leans traditional and succeeds and another that leads diners to wonder what's what. In the taquitos Mexicanos ($10), six slender tubes are filled half with shredded chicken and half with chorizo and tender potato. The addictive, crispy-fried cigars are garnished with pickled vegetables, drizzled with cool crema and served with guacamole. On the other end of the spectrum are chorizo fireballs ($10), essentially deep-fried balls of bland goo.
A full third of Blue Habanero's menu is devoted to "street tacos," roughly 15 varieties of taco sold by the trio. Prices range from $12 to $15, mixing and matching of fillings is not permitted, and the portions are on the small side (much like the typical Mexican taco). The good news is that they star housemade corn shells that are warm, pliant and fragrant. Options are built around veggies like zucchini and squash blossoms, seafood such as salmon and shrimp, and meats like barbacoa, al pastor and grilled chicken. Salsa and a choice of side (rice, black beans, refried beans, veggies) are included.
Some of the best bargains in the house are the burritos, hulking flour tortilla-wrapped bundles stuffed with rice, beans and a choice of meats. The Melting Chimichanga ($13) arrives completely enrobed in a slick of thin, creamy cheese sauce, lubricating every bite with its sweet, salty kiss. Not to be left out of the rice bowl craze, Blue Habanero lets diners pick a protein topper for a deep bowl ($12) of white rice, black beans, pickled veggies and greens (essentially all the sides and garnishes).
Local beer snobs are out of luck when it comes to suds, with choices limited strictly to macros and Mexican cervesas. But margarita ($14) fans are sitting pretty because most of the cocktails fashioned here feature good tequila, fresh juice, and no sticky sour mix. A handful of fine cocktails like the Paloma ($10), a straightforward blend of tequila, grapefruit and agave, are appreciated for their balance and restraint.
Blue Habanero is well run, with swift, gracious and enthusiastic service. It's operated by the folks behind Tres Potrillos, which has locations in Akron, Medina and Beachwood. By the time you read this review, the restaurant will have been open nearly as long as Arcadian, which doesn't account for much, but also could herald a long and prosperous life.