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Welcome to Spice Route, in which food writer Warren Rojas connects diners to the most fiery and flavorful dishes in area restaurants.
Location: Taqueria Habanero, 3710 14th St. NW; 8145 Baltimore Ave., College Park; habanerodc.com
Vision: Around these parts, the phrase “Mexican street food” tends to conjure images of flame-licked elote blanketed with mayo and mountains of cotija cheese. That’s not the case for Puebla-native-turned-D.C.-restaurateur Dio Montero, who swears by the cactus-topped corn cakes he gobbled up when he was young.
Montero explains that back home people tend to dress huaraches—bean-filled masa that are fried to a crisp and layered with assorted meats and vegetables—with handfuls of shredded lettuce. When he opened the original Taqueria Habanero on 14th Street NW, Montero decided to share his family’s twist on the regional specialty by piling on neatly sliced nopales cooked with hot peppers.
Execution: “Oh yeah,” a server assures me, “they’re hot,” when I ask about the potency of the jalapeño woven into the restaurant’s signature dish. Unfortunately, the pops of fire are few and far between amid the thicket of fleshy, slow-cooked cactus paddles. But that’s by design.
“The jalapeños should not overpower the huarache, it should just serve to give the dish a bit of a spicy kick,” Montero said. Sometimes, Montero tosses zesty chorizo into the mix. Heat seekers will still likely want to double up on orders of the appetizing tomatillo salsa. Or drown everything in the poblano pepper-fueled red salsa.
The one thing that doesn’t need any doctoring is the savory black bean filling. Montero says he reduces his onion-blasted paste for hours before smoothing it into the oblong mass of dough. The combination of lightly scorched corn and creamy refried beans is the definition of comfort food.
Intensity (out of five): Two sirens