Tango in the night

Living with a heat addict can be trying. Don’t expect the heat addict to appreciate the complexities of any subtle sauces. He burned out his palate long ago on habaneros and Thai bird peppers. Like the overstocked medicine cabinet of a hypochondriac, your refrigerator will be stuffed to the gills with hot sauces and salsas from around the world. If it doesn’t make him sweat, it isn’t hot enough. And chances are good that, unless the chef at the restaurant in question is insane, it isn’t hot enough.

So, the heat addict in my family was understandably enthused at the prospect of dining at the enticingly named Habanero Cava Latina. As he discovered, if you’re looking for mind-blowing heat levels, you’re going to be disappointed. But not much else disappoints at this longtime J Street mainstay of South American cuisine. Without exception, the food sampled was lovingly prepared and reassuringly true to its roots.

This intimate eatery is decorated in an offbeat style, with burlap tablecloths covered by brown butcher paper. We ventured out on a Sunday night, which proved to be a fortuitous choice; Sacramento Tango holds an evening of social dancing at the restaurant on Sundays from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fabulous food and free entertainment—what’s not to like about that? Bonus points have to be given to the amiable waiters, who must scramble to keep up with the flood of diners and weave their way through the tangoing couples to boot.

Habanero’s menu is Latin American and ranges widely, from Mexico to Brazil. We ventured to El Salvador for an appetizer of pupusas ($5.95), griddle cakes of masa enclosing creamy white cheese, and to the Dominican Republic for platanos ($4.95), fried ripe plantains. The pupusas were topped with a black-bean puree and served with a side of marinated cabbage and salsa fresca, which provided a welcome and tart complement to the crisp, fried corn cakes. The black-bean puree also made an appearance on top of the plantain chips, which were perfectly cooked to highlight the floury sweetness of the plantains.

The culinary adventure continued with our main courses: jocon ($13.95) from Guatemala and churrasco ($15.95) from Argentina. Jocon is a Mayan dish of pan-seared chicken breast simmered in a sauce of ground, toasted pumpkin seeds and tomatillo. It came served with rice, avocados, tomatoes and corn tortillas. I would question the decision to sear the breasts; that produced a slightly stringy exterior on what was otherwise a moist piece of chicken. But the sauce was very well made indeed—complex and robust without being overwhelming.

Indeed, the food throughout the evening spoke of a sure hand, with seasoning that provided a very welcome note of authenticity. The black beans that accompanied many of the dishes were a highlight rather than an afterthought. They were cooked perfectly and seasoned to a rich creaminess that is all too rare in most restaurants’ presentation of legumes. Even the fried potatoes served as a side to the churrasco were perfect examples of their kind, sautéed in olive oil until slightly crisp and tasting of the essence of potato.

Beef lovers would do well to order the aforementioned churrasco. Argentina is well-known for its reverence for beef, and this Argentine-style flap steak is a homage to that predilection. In southern Brazil and Argentina, a churrasco is a spicy barbecue, where beef cuts and sausages are marinated and grilled, often in a fire pit. At Habanero, this unusual cut of meat was marinated in onion, garlic, parsley and oregano; char-grilled; and topped with a chimichurri sauce of vinegar, garlic, onion and the traditional parsley. It came accompanied by those heavenly black beans and potatoes as well as marinated cabbage. The meat itself was lovingly prepared, perfectly seared on the outside and tender and juicy inside. Again, the seasoning was handled deftly, highlighting the flavor of the meat without masking it.

Desserts at Habanero were equally appealing and included flan, Key lime pie, and warm empanadas stuffed with pecans and caramel cream and served with vanilla ice cream. If you order one, cut the sweetness with a tiny cup of super-strong Cuban coffee, laced with a hint of cinnamon. Then, weave through those tangoing couples, totter through the door and head out, well-satisfied, into the night.