photo credit: Richard Casteel
Habanero Mexican Cafe
Waiting in line for food is a sport for people in Austin. Whether it’s for barbecue, tacos, or even a hot bowl of ramen noodles in the middle of the summer. We don’t always get the hype, but there are, of course, some exceptions, and Habanero Cafe is one of them. This old-school working class Mexican/Tex-Mex diner has been serving breakfast and lunch in South Austin for over 20 years, but it feels like it’s been there forever. It’s an institution. The restaurant is charming and simple, and we frequently go to Habanero Cafe because there’s some great no-nonsense Tex-Mex food to be had.
Habanero Cafe is not fancy. It’s a little scrappy, with hand painted menus on the walls by the entrance, vintage diner chairs, not especially strong air conditioning, and decorations that consist of some black and white picture frames, papel picado, and some piñatas. The crowd, though, is always a superb cross-section of Austin, spanning from little old ladies getting the usual breakfast plate, to goth kids nursing hangovers with extremely spicy bowls of menudo, little league coaches picking up enormous to-go orders to feed their big and hungry team, and other smart people who know they’re getting a great deal on excellent grilled fajitas. Service is exactly what you’d expect out of a busy diner—direct and efficient—with bustling servers working the room, carrying enormous trays, and refilling coffee cups with mission and determination. This is exactly where you want to be on a weekend morning.
Like most diner-y Tex-Mex spots, the food here is pretty traditional, spanning from fajitas to enchiladas, from tortas to burritos, from migas to huevos rancheros. And like most diner-y Tex-Mex spots, Habanero Cafe has its own idiosyncrasies and unique menu items, like a seriously spicy habanero salsa (in addition to the regular red salsa). Instead of the standard diner potatoes, fries come with most dishes, which is super uncommon. We’re into it. There are a few dishes that were probably invented by regulars that eventually made it to the regular menu, like the delightful huevos gringos, in which two over-easy eggs get covered in queso alongside tender carne guisada, refried beans, fries, and tortillas. It’s impressive that Habanero Cafe does a pretty brisk takeout business—even selling meats by the pound—and still, the food in the dining room generally comes out screamingly fast.
The reality is that Habanero Cafe is no hidden gem. It’s right on a busy stretch of Oltorf between South Congress and South 1st Street where there are a ton of options for breakfast and lunch within a half-mile radius. The word is out. If you go during a prime breakfast hour, especially on the weekends, there will usually be a pretty decent wait. It’s worth it. We’re no fans of big lines, but for the food at Habanero Cafe, especially the fajitas, we’d willingly stand in the hot Texas sun in the middle of summer (well, for maybe 15 minutes max).
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The fajitas at Habanero Cafe are not only a phenomenal value, they’re also incredibly delicious. Marinated so they have a deep umami flavor, they’re smoky and char-grilled over mesquite, and come out sizzling hot. The options are either beef or chicken, but be brave and get them ranchera-style, which is extra hot with a spicy rub and jalapenos. You can get them as a plate which comes with rice, charro beans, pico, guacamole, and tortillas, or you can get fajita tacos, tortas, or gorditas. Like time and space, fajitas are seemingly infinite.
We like to get the migas plate at Habanero Cafe because the tortilla chips are still a little crispy, offering a nice textural counterpoint to the fluffy eggs. But we also like to get the machacado plate, with a deep, funky beefy flavor. We sometimes get funny looks when we try to order both plates at once, and the simplest solution is to order them in breakfast taco form.
The huevos gringos is breakfast ingenuity in which over-easy eggs get covered in queso, and then served with carne guisada, refried beans, fries, and tortillas. It’s a perfect Tex-Mex breakfast combo plate we never knew could exist, and now we want it all the time. It’s so many brown and yellow foods proudly on a plate, and there’s no attempt to gussy it up with a sprig of parsley or anything.