Let's talk Mexican food. What comes to mind? If you're like me, I think of the typical fare that graces many Mexican restaurants found in this country—a plate of enchiladas, tacos, or burritos, symmetrically aligned and all covered with some sort of unidentifiable sauce. There may be a bland side of rice and refried beans to accompany it, and you go home stuffed, but not necessarily satisfied. Granted, for many people, this very image is what hits the spot for their Latin food craving. But for others who want a bit more, keep reading, because I've got the spot for you!
Let's head to downtown Martinsburg, to the corner of Queen and Burke streets, where Habanero Mexican Grill has found a home. You will not find another Mexican restaurant like it in the tri-county area, and upon walking inside and being greeted by a cheery orange décor and an even cheerier staff, you might just stop looking. A companion and I headed to Habanero on a Tuesday evening, where I assumed that I would find a quiet downtown night. Most downtown businesses were closed and I figured we would have the place to ourselves. I was wrong. A steady stream of customers had similar plans, and as I soon found out, for good reason.
Having traveled all over Latin America, I have become slightly discriminating when it comes to sampling fare from that part of the world. I've had the real deal, and it can be hard to compare. But this place served up simple and fresh ingredients—a combination that can be hard to beat no matter the type of cuisine. It was certainly a winner this night. After perusing the overhead menu (no table service or extensive menus here), I chose the fajita veggie burrito (with rice and black beans) and my companion chose the chicken tacos. I love guacamole and am always looking for the next best batch, so we ordered the large basket of chips, a side of the green stuff, and a side of cheese dip. Everything was prepared right in front of us, and we chose all toppings for the burrito and tacos. Mine was graced with lettuce, tomato, pico de gallo, sour cream, and guacamole. (To be honest, I was much too busy anticipating my first bite to even notice what my companion chose.)
I was not disappointed, and neither was my partner. He can be fairly picky, so I was secretly wondering how this was going to work out for him. My worries were unfounded; after that first bite, he declared, and I quote, "Oh yeah, this is it." High praise, I assure you. There wasn't much conversation after that, as we were both hungry and happy. The guacamole definitely passed muster, as there was not a bite of it left. Another mark of high praise for Habanero!
Now let's talk to Charly Zawacki, the chef and owner of Habanero, and the woman responsible for its presence in the Panhandle. Her first job was in a restaurant at age fourteen, and she fell in love with the environment. She eventually attended Johnson and Wales University, where she studied pastry and food service management. Shortly thereafter, Zawacki relocated to the Panhandle, where the cost of living appealed to her. Working in various establishments around the area, she was quickly able to gain multiple perspectives on how to run a business. In one coffee shop, the owner told her it was always best to learn on someone else's dime. "I thought that was good advice!" she laughs.
All that experience paid off one summer day, when the stars aligned for her and Habanero. She had just been laid off from a job, and happened to be in downtown Martinsburg for an appointment. She had an hour to waste prior to the meeting, and it was then that she stumbled across the empty storefront on the corner. Zawacki called the city to arrange a showing, liked what she saw, and set the plan in motion. "I'd saved lots of money and decided that I was going to use it for something big someday," she remembers. That "something big" turned out to be a restaurant of her own, and with help from her family, and a speedy permit process from the city of Martinsburg, her dream was realized.
That was in September of 2008, and three years later, Habanero Mexican Grill is a staple in downtown Martinsburg. With meals as delicious as what I was able to sample, it's not a surprise. Ultimately, it's Zawacki's goal to serve fresh ingredients, from scratch. "Fresh food is very important to me. No freezer, no microwave, no can opener," she insists. "There are no unnecessary fats—we keep it simple, and try to keep everything as natural as possible."
With burrito options ranging from tofu for the veggie lover to steak and chicken for the carnivores, she attempts to please all types of Mexican food lovers. Not a fan of burritos? Try the taco salad, quesadillas, or the nachos. Zawacki came up with most of the recipes herself, after experimenting at home. A few of the formulas are inspired by her family. "Growing up, we weren't limited to one type of food," she shares. Reaching back to her childhood, it's her father's recipe for ground beef that she now uses at her own restaurant, and the advice of her brother on spices that now makes her rice and beans so tasty.
The concept of fresh food has taken off "amazingly," and she and the Habanero staff have developed a following of loyal customers. They're busy during the day with downtown foot traffic, but at night, families from all over the Panhandle come out to enjoy a meal together. "We are a destination point in the evening," Zawacki boasts. She and her staff want to make customers happy at every turn. One customer begged for tofu to be added to the menu, and six months later, it was. They changed their portion sizes after noticing many patrons ordering off of the kids menu. Another customer, at one point, asked them to serve a shrimp burrito in observance of Lent. "Now, if we took that off the menu, there might be a riot!" she smiles.
Aside from good food, though, the chef attributes their success to something equally important: a positive attitude. "Having a friendly environment is very important."
Habanero is open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. If you want to check out their menu, or find out what all the fuss is about, visit HabaneroMexicanGrill.com. If you're just plain hungry, then don't even worry about all of that, and just get to Habanero tonight!