Saturday, May 21, 2011

Red Habanero

When walking into Red Habanero, you could easily mistake it for a Qdoba or Chipotle. And on it's face, the menu does nothing to distinguish it. Sure, there are a few items you won't find at the "fast casual" TexMex chains, but Red Habanero's bread & butter (tortilla & salsa?) are the same tacos, burritos, quesadillas & enchiladas. But where the chains have moved to dumb down the flavor for the mass-market audience, Red Habanero has turned up the heat.

After approaching the counter, we noticed there were several menu items labeled "Hot!". As most places take that to mean there might be a jalapeno or two thrown in, we paid that no mind continued to scan the menu. We decided on a pair of quesadillas for the kids -- one with chicken for Stella and a plain cheese for Oz. Libby ordered one of the "Hot!" items, the Jalepeno Lime Chicken burrito, while Fred chose his usual TexMex baseline dish, the Chile Colorado (this time in burrito form). On each burrito, we had our choice of 4 toppings including the usual cilantro, pico de gallo, sour cream & cheese, but also tomatoes, guacamole, black olives, onion & mushrooms, to name a few.

As each entree came with tortilla chips, we sauntered over to the salsa bar to check out the options. Wow! Not just the usual 2 choices (hot & mild) but 5-6 solid ones. There was the house, tomatillo, ranchero, habanero, chipotle, & pico. We happily scooped out a bit of each for tasting. We were pleasantly surprised at the freshness & flavor of each. Per their menu, they make each one fresh daily. It's the little things that really make a place stand out from the crowd, and this was it for Red Habanero. Shockingly, the house salsa was the spiciest of the bunch, well ahead of even the habanero. Stella snuck a taste of it after watching Mom & Dad sample each one. She quickly got an aggrieved look and decided to dip in her beans instead.

The burritos are grilled in a sandwich press which Fred found a little odd, but not displeasing. His Chile Colorado was superb. The flavor of the beef was head and shoulders above anything you get at the chains. The ranchero sauce it'd been simmered in had crept deep into the meat. No need for a salsa to add flavor here. Overall, a great crunch and just enough heat to bring a little sweat to your brow. Perfect.

Libby's burrito was a pleasant surprise on many fronts. First of all, during preparation a large pre-marinated and grilled breast was chopped fresh right before her eyes! Impressive. The jalepeno lime sauce was applied liberally and had a lovely bright green hue. The real test was in the taste and after one bite "fresh" was really the best way to put it. The sauce wasn't really apparent until the third or fourth bite, Holy C***!!!, this was hot! Sure, there was the usual, discomfort in the mouth, a little bit of sweat forming on the upper cheeks, but it was the actual stomach cramps that got her attention. How can something taste so fresh and amazing and give you insta-ulcer?!!! It did cause a slow down in eating when you had to wait for the cramping to subside to have another bite. Yes, it hurt so good. Note to self; next time, heed the "hot" warning.

The kids simply demolished the meal. Other than Ozzy's beans, it was clean plates all around, with Stella wanting to dip her chips in Mommy's burrito. We tried Stella's chicken quesadilla and were surprised at the flavor even in the kid's version. Well seasoned meat and multiple cheeses. Either of us would have been happy to finish it for her!

As we were about to leave, an employee came out and offered free small cups of ice cream for the kids as well as a tiny 3" diameter sombrero. Totally unexpected at an order-at-the-counter joint! We could feel real pride and honesty in his voice and actions. When a chain does something like that, it's not even close to the same feeling.

Wrap Up
Price-$, Basically the same prices as the competition. Love it when you can support your local mom & pop without spending a dime more!
Atmosphere-**, You honestly could have been in any burrito joint---except for the stocked bar! Margarita with your burrito anyone!?
Service-****, No dead-behind-the-eyes minimum wage slaves here. If everyone who worked there wasn't family or friend of the family, we'd be shocked.

Fred- A- , I actually had to go back a few days later to try the tacos! (also awesome -- try the Three Amigos pictured at the top!). My only complaint is the grill on the burrito. I really think it'd be better without. It's a nit-pick though. Next I have to try the shrimp tacos. Yum!
Libby-A, Other than the intense pain, this was a fabulous experience. Great food with real attention to freshness. It's nice when hot means hot.
Ozzy- A+, Lets see, carbs, cheese & more carbs. Oh, then free ice-cream out of the blue! Ozzy heaven!
Estelle- A+, I'm sure we've shared her bean love in the past. But when you add chips & ice cream to the deal, you've got her dead to rights.

Red Habanero on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fire by the Monon

Another new restaurant has hit the scene in Broadripple -- Fire by the Monon. It bills itself as an upscale American grill with an emphasis on grilled local foods, local beer taps, and more heart-healthy choices. We walked the Monon from around the Biscuits vicinity and found Fire in a familiar area behind La Piedad. A red building greeted us and so did plenty of friendly smiles when we arrived.

Upon entering, to our right was a quiet looking bar area. To the left, another bar was visible...was there family seating available? Yes. In between the two bars there was a room with space for 5 cramped tables. To our dismay, almost half of it was taken up by a very loud 8-top of drunken 30-40 somethings whooping it up about weddings or bachelorette parties or whatever. Not a good start. We know what would help this! Beer! We needed to know what was on tap and get the kids some chow.

Chow was simple. Salads, a few entrees, some pizzas, burgers and sandwiches. The server informed us it was their soft opening menu, so things would change up soon. We went with a cheese pizza for Ozzy and pepperoni for Stella. Fred was into The Lake(grilled trout sandwich) and Libby the gouda-bacon burger. Both with sweet potato fries and shredded pickle(shreddies) on the side. Although after a couple of salads went by, we wondered if that was the way to go. They looked like something different and very fresh!

The beer selection was impressive, including locals Upland, Flat 12, Oaken Barrel, Barley Island and Sun King. Oh, how about an Upland Wheat for Libby and a Flat 12 American Wit for Fred? Sure! Fairly quickly, the beers arrived and Libby was sad to see the foggy beer in her glass. Now Upland Wheat should be cloudy, but not look (and taste) like dishwater. Whether the beginning or end of the keg, this was not acceptable. One taste and it was obvious this should not have gone out to the table. Our waitress, who seemed to have expected this, quickly swooped in and offered to exchange it for a Sun King. Ah. Much better. But it made us wonder aloud, why did it get served if they knew it was questionable?! The rabble continued.

This noise problem was not just us nor was it relenting. The table was getting the stink-eye from other diners as well. We have to ask, wasn't there room for 8 grown women to sit in one of your two bar areas? Ozzy decided he couldn't take it anymore and declared it was too loud, covered his ears, and asked to go home. Fred tried to tend the issue with some napkin made earplugs. On the way to the bathroom to insert them, he was stopped by another server who apologized and informed him that acoustic panels had been ordered. Another table arrived, and they were also informed of the noise reduction plan. We ended up scooting our table about a foot to help accommodate the small space for another table and that seemed to slightly help Ozzy's agony. Although Libby started to get feedback static from the jubilant noise behind her. Even Stella's occasional wails were muffled in comparison. Really?!

Before too long the food came. Yay! Ozzy was overjoyed and started to dig in as did Stella. Fred and Libby quickly snapped a shot of each sandwich and sunk in.

The burger was really good. Well cooked, nice seasoning and a very satisfying bite. The buns on both sandwiches were a wonderful toasted wheat. Teddy's, this is how you do a wheat bun right! The sweet potato fries were very familiar. Definitely from a bag. Not bad, just not special. The "shreddies" although only pickles were really fresh and the accompanying remoulade was a nice touch. Fred's trout sandwich was just that. A grilled piece of trout with lettuce and tomato along with the same remoulade. Not bad, just not special.

The kids' pizzas were fine. Ozzy ate his aggressively and Stella tried to eat a full slice new-york-fold style. While mom & dad were unimpressed with the crust, Fire does know what kids want in a pie.

When the check came, we were more than ready to go. It's a sad thing that the environment actually played a bigger part than the food or even the service in our experience. Yes, it was a soft opening, but how long should a soft opening go on? We know this "soft opening" had been going on for at least a week by this point, as other bloggers had already written about it. It is still hard to decide whether we care to go back and give it another try. Family seating should be just that. A group of adults out to have a good time shouldn't be taking up half the dining area when there are two bar areas available. Belly up to one of the bars. We would if we could. :)

Wrap Up
Price-$$, Your standard sit-down burger prices.
Atmosphere-*, Loud and nondescript. How do you make an old building have zero character? Maybe there is some in the bar areas...
Service-*, Friendly & they were obviously trying. But there were multiple mistakes made. Not just in seating that group, but our server knew the beer was bad. She hovered until Libby took her first taste and immediately offered to replace it. If you know it's bad, DON'T SERVE IT!

Fred-C , The food was "Not Bad. Just not special." That about sums it up. Maybe if they get their "stuff" together, I'll give it another go. But I won't be hurrying back any time soon. Also, if you want to stand out for your food, don't have your standard side dish come out of a bag. Whatever happened to (from Fire's website) "our first step includes working with local producers and suppliers to bring their best products to your table."
Libby-C+, The burger was very tasty. But this was the first time I truly understood how much impact atmosphere would have on my meal. It was very difficult to enjoy anything about it when my son was covering his ears in distress and all I kept thinking was "how did the hostess screw up seating this badly?!" The bars were almost empty!
Ozzy- D, He has never complained about noise before. Even at Chuck-E-Cheese. This would have been an F had it not been for the clean-plate-club pizza.
Estelle-B , After 5 ear infections in the last 6 months, Stella is almost half-deaf according to the docs. So she enjoyed her meal immensely! ;)

Fire by the Monon on Urbanspoon