El Habanero Loko fills a niche in downtown Lexington

Contributing Restaurant CriticSeptember 12, 2013 

  • RESTAURANT REVIEW

    El Habanero Loko

    Where: 102 W. Vine St.

    Phone: (859) 225-5656

    Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m.-4 a.m. Thu.-Sat.

    Online: Search "Takeria Elhabanero Loko" on Facebook

    Other: Street parking. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol served. All small dishes, $3-$8; entrees and platters, $10-$30.

El Habanero Loko was one of Lexington's first, and remains one of its finest, food trucks to get attention as the mobile-eating trend emerged.

Its vehicle would pop up at breweries around town and at random locations very late at night, serving perfect Mexican street fare. Customers stood in line to order, and they waited as their food was prepared on the spot. It was worth those few minutes of standing around to get the compact paper tray whose contents smelled like heaven, and heaven got even better when paired with locally brewed IPAs.

Until now, most real Mexican food has required schlepping to far-flung taquerias, so to say that downtown Lexington was excited when rumors circulated that El Habanero Loko was planning a brick-and-mortar restaurant is an understatement. A few months ago, the rumor became a reality.

The truck still travels around, of course, but now we have alternatives to queuing up.

At the little corner spot at Limestone and Vine Street, previously occupied by J. Morse Bistro and Tonio's Mexican Restaurant, the menu remains small, amended by just a few platter-size additions. Some of these succeed, notably the chicken breast milanesa, pounded thin and dipped in seasoned bread crumbs and then sautéed to a deep golden brown. The rice and black bean accompaniments, although sometimes lukewarm, are terrific — savory, salty and spicy. Judging by the "pan tilapia," however — a "Napoleon" of corn tortillas layered with chopped fish and black beans, napped in a pretty but nondescript sauce — the entrée experiment remains a work in progress.

Your best bet is to stick with the dishes for which these folks are known.

Try a good taco with beef cheeks. I can't think of another place that serves them. The meat is so marbled that some bites resemble marrow, a nice textural contrast to slightly crunchy diced onions and cabbage. With a squirt of lime juice, a jolt of spicy habanero sauce from the squeeze bottle and a scattering of chopped parsley, this showcases the wonderful flavors for which El Habanero Loko has become known and loved. If you want something more familiar, there's always the chopped pork al pastor, redolent of chili seasonings, or the peppery steak tacos.

My particular favorite is the sandwich of cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan specialty of pork cooked in banana leaves and then pulled to moist shreds. It is served with the traditional pickled red onions on a toasted bun smeared with mayonnaise. Delicious.

The chicken gorditas, or fried cornmeal cakes, also are wonderful. Like sloppy joes, they are a messy sandwich to eat, with lots of cilantro, cheese, beans and onions spilling out of the sides, but it's well worth the effort.

In short, El Habanero Loko still makes some of the best tacos and tortas in town.

In some ways, though, I think the restaurant is still finding its comfort level. For example, the outdoor dining is fun, with lots of people-watching at the busy intersection, but the interior, candy-colored walls notwithstanding, could have friendlier lighting and a warmer feel.

Plus, menus at a sit-down restaurant are a different kind of commitment than the chalkboard spontaneity of a food truck's daily offerings; it can be disappointing when items are not available, especially ones as tantalizing as a blended mango shake or as standard as guacamole.

Figuring out synchronization is more complex in a larger space and takes time, and that is further complicated by maintaining both venues. Yet in spite of these growing pains, El Habanero Loko is again leading the way by filling the need for an independently owned, centrally located authentic Mexican taqueria with ample seating — one that stays open after hours on weekends to boot.


RESTAURANT REVIEW

El Habanero Loko

Where: 102 W. Vine St.

Phone: (859) 225-5656

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m.-4 a.m. Thu.-Sat.

Online: Search "Takeria Elhabanero Loko" on Facebook

Other: Street parking. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol served. All small dishes, $3-$8; entrees and platters, $10-$30.

Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.

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