Habanero’s Mexican Grill

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Name: Habanero’s Mexican Grill

Location: 3001 N Sherman Ave, Madison, WI 53704

Ambiance: Casual, take out

Price: $

Best Dish: Tacos

Madison has a lot of Mexican places, all with varying degrees of success. Habanero’s is unique because it serves food in the Chipotle style, with the glass barrier and the ability to customize. They used to be located in a rather sketchy building that was a garish neon orange and blue, but have since relocated to a spot in the strip mall next to Benvenuto’s. With steel topped tables sparsely distributed in the restaurant, they aren’t exactly a sit down place — however, they do serve outstanding, quick Mexican food.

Habanero’s has the standard Mexican fast food fare — burritos, tacos, quesadillas, etc. However, they also have tortas, which are delicious. My personal favorite is their tacos (3 for around $8) — wrapped in two warm flour tortillas, one order comes with a generous serving of three tacos. Both their mild salsa verde and their spicy salsa roja are incredibly flavorful, with just the right amount of spice to be tasty without drowning out other flavors. Their guacamole is creamy and has a nice tartness to it from the lime, but my favorite are their fajita veggies — the onions are caramelized well, and the peppers are cooked down so they’re soft while retaining their structure, and they are spiced well. Vegetarian tacos often suffer from a lack of flavor and components — however, that is not a problem at Habanero’s. They also have a unique addition: veneno, or their pickled onions and habaneros. Although the name translates to venom, I found it to be more vinegary (in the pickle sense) than spicy, and it cuts through the rest of the flavors well.

They also serve horchata, and while I am personally not a fan of cinnamon, my friend who is said it was tasty. Although they’re a little out of the way, Habanero’s is worth the trip for some quick, delicious Mexican food that isn’t Chipotle or another chain. I recommend their spicy salsas — however, if you have a milder palate, the pico de gallo and salsa verde will be just as flavorful.

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Estación Inka

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Lomo Saltado Platter

Name: Estación Inka

Location: 606 University Ave, Madison, WI 53715

Ambience: Relaxed, casual

Price: $$-$$$

Best Dish: Lomo Saltado Platter — with mushrooms

At first glance, Estación Inka has no vegetarian options. This isn’t exactly surprising, considering how meat heavy Peruvian food tends to be. However, they’re more than willing to do a vegetarian substitute — if you like mushrooms, that is.

I personally happen to love mushrooms, so I found this restaurant to be a delight. It’s cute, if a little sparse — white walls, white tables, with Peruvian beer cans as a decoration. Their food is unique and very flavorful, particularly the sauce that they gave on the side. The Lomo Saltado platter ($10.99), which is traditionally served with beef, was fantastic. It consists of crispy french fries topped with a rich sautee of mushrooms, carrots, and onions. The onions are crispy despite being cooked down, and the carrots have a nice bite to them. The best part is that the sauce they use actually seeps into the vegetables, lending it the flavor.

Also good was their Chicken Brasa sandwich ($8.99) — which my vegetarian friend substituted mushrooms in for as well. The main problem was that it was effectively the same dish as the Lomo Saltado platter — just… in sandwich form. It was still good, it just doesn’t offer much variety.Instead of french fries, they substituted papitas in, or thin slivers of potato that are deep fried until crispy, and it was definitely the best part of the sandwich.

Their mango smoothie was fine, nothing particularly special. The appeal of Estación Inka comes from the uniqueness of the cuisine they serve — the flavors are different, softer and warmer than Mexican food. If we ate meat, perhaps we would get more of the diversity that Peruvian food has to offer — they are noted for their rotisserie chicken, so any meat-eating friends would have lots of great options. At around $10/person, it’s a little on the expensive side for being a fast casual restaurant, but it does make up for it by filling a niche cuisine.

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Chicken Brasa Sandwich

Paul’s Pel’meni

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Potato Pel’meni with the Works

Name: Paul’s Pel’meni

Location: 203 W Gorham St, Madison, WI 53703

Ambiance: Casual

Cost: $

Best Dish: Potato pel’meni with the works

Paul’s Pel’meni is refreshingly minimalist. It offers three options: potato pel’meni, beef pel’meni, and a mix of potato and beef pel’meni (which are little Russian dumplings). You can get them as a half order or full, and with or without the works (which consists of melted butter, sweet chili sauce, minced cilantro and a dusting of yellow curry on top, and sour cream) for no extra cost — although I highly, highly recommend going with the works since the dumplings taste quite bland otherwise. The potato inside is creamy, perfectly complimented by a cool mix of sour cream and the mild heat from the chili sauce. A soda is an extra dollar, and an extra sour cream is $0.50. For just $6.50, the full order is a satisfying meal.

There’s literally no possible way to go wrong.