“Barriga llena, corazon contento” (Full belly, happy heart). That’s the motto of El Habanero, a cash-only, family-owned Mexican restaurant (3300 W. Fullerton Ave.) that is no stranger to the neighborhood and Mexican food lovers.
El Habanero, a neighborhood favorite, opened its doors in March 2014 after siblings Lorena and Marco Ramirez finally found the perfect fixer-upper to start their business.
Opening a restaurant had always been on the Ramirez’s minds, but it wasn’t until Marco quit his full-time job that the hunt became serious. The two scoured areas like Logan Square and Bucktown, but high rent and awkward spaces kept them from taking the leap. By chance, Marco passed the current location. He noticed that a former Colombian restaurant was going up for rent.
“It worked out like that, and it worked out pretty well,” Marco Ramirez said.
The place was a mess, but the Ramirez family was excited. After six months of cleaning, painting and acquiring permits, El Habanero was finally ready to open its doors.
The name El Habanero is inspired by the heavy use of habanero peppers in traditional Mexican food, a pepper well- loved in the Ramirez’s kitchen.
El Habanero has a tiny staff: Marco, Lorena, her two teenagers, and one chef. A close-knit team means eating at the restaurant feels like coming home. The meals are fresh and served with love, and you can always expect a smile and a hug once you become a regular.
It’s El Habanero’s goal to make everyone feel at home, and they have clearly succeeded. Committed regulars originally from Chicago continue to travel from as far as Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana.
Good hospitality isn’t the only thing that keeps customers coming back. El Habanero serves authentic, hearty dishes inspired by Mexico City’s cuisine, the major city closest to where the Ramirez family grew up in Puebla. Their most popular dish is the pombazo, also known as a “poor man’s sandwich.”
Apart from pombazos, El Habanero features classics like tacos, burritos, fresh juices and horchatas, as well as specials and more. My personal favorite is the Enchiladas Verdes Platillo. For ten bucks, you can feast on three cheese-stuffed enchiladas drenched (but not drowned) in a bright, spicy verde sauce with rice, beans, and a small side salad.
The best part about any meal at El Habanero is the chips and salsa. They serve a unique ground salsa rojo loaded with garlic and fresh herbs. Unlike a typical salsa, it contains no liquid. Rather, it has a nearly whipped texture perfect for scooping up with their fresh chips. I love to mix it with their traditional salsa verde, which they also bring to the table. If you’re looking for something special, ask for La Diabla, the secret salsa they keep in the back. Inspired by a traditional Mexican dish featuring shredded habanero, lime juice and oregano, it’s sure to give you the bite you’re looking for.
I have been a customer at El Habanero for about five years, and I’ve never been disappointed by an experience there. The staff is warm and considerate, and their food is consistent and flavorful.
So, do yourself a favor. The next time you’re looking for Mexican food in Logan Square, hop on the Fullerton bus, walk or bike (or scooter) to the distinct orange doors—and don’t forget your cash!
Featured photo: Evan Dye
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