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Habaneros Mexican Kitchen & Tequileria shows potential in Westminster

Habaneros Mexican Kitchen & Tequileria, tucked into a nondescript shopping center in Westminster, is a feast for the eyes once you've stepped inside. Red, yellow and lime green hues adorn the walls and tables. Festive Latin music gets your toes tapping.

It's an earnest place, where the staff makes every effort to please its customers. Our server was jovial and eager, but he seemed new to the job. Drink orders were wrong, water didn't make it to the table and dishes arrived in a helter-skelter fashion.

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In the end, we left sated and confident that Habaneros will work out its growing pains. The restaurant opened in mid-February in the former Parks Landing space and is turning out mostly successful traditional Tex-Mex fare, from empanadas and burritos to tacos and nachos.

The guacamole was chunkier than most we've sampled but still creamy with avocado, jalapenos that gave it a zesty kick and a bright note of lime. The dip looked jaunty with crackers sticking in it like sailboats in a bay of green.

It's a generous portion. Our party of four shared it, and we still had leftovers. We could have used more of another appetizer — the stuffed jalapenos. We gobbled up the three peppers quickly. The delicious bullets were stuffed with gooey white cheese, then wrapped in bacon and grilled. The crispy bacon gave the standard snack a big boost, and it came with ranch dressing for dipping.

The queso flameado was another shareable appetizer. The melted cheese was delivered hot in a cast-iron pan with chunks of spicy chorizo sprinkled on top. The dish was served with soft flour tortillas, but we found that the restaurant's sturdy chips, brought with salsa when you're first seated, were much better scoopers.

Since Habaneros bills itself as a tequileria, we asked our waiter what tequilas were available. The question sent him scurrying to the bar — a pretty area separate from the main dining room — where he disappeared for a while.

He returned with an electronic notebook and flashed a few choices in front of us. We later learned that the restaurant carries 40 kinds of the liquor.

We decided on a frozen pina margarita, rimmed with salt, whose pineapple undertones reminded us of beach vacations. There are also cocktails such as a vampiro, a drink similar to a Bloody Mary but with beer, and a mojito.

We opted for the house sangria, a lackluster red wine mix. Originally, we had asked our waiter about wines since none was listed on the menu. He was unsure at first but then agreed to bring us a chardonnay.

He came back to our table some time later with white zinfandel, which we had to tell him was not the wine we ordered. We fared better with beer, receiving a Modelo Especial in quick order. The restaurant carries 12 Mexican brews plus domestic bottles and drafts.

There are nine kinds of burritos on the menu. It's no exaggeration to say that ours, the carne guisada, like the others we saw on tables around us, was the size of a dinner plate. The bulging bundle, draped with a cheese sauce, swaddled a satisfying beef stew-like mix with lettuce, tomato and onions.

Most main dishes come with rice and charro beans, which we found bland. Another dish, beef fajitas, had those extras as well as the usual partners of lettuce and tomatoes. You have to ask for sour cream if you want it.

The tender beef captured the essence of the sizzling dish with red and green peppers and sliced onions. The mix was delicious, and there was more than enough for the two flour tortillas that accompanied it. Our server cheerfully brought us extra tortillas when we asked.

The fish tacos were everything they should have been, with fat chunks of fried tilapia, shredded cabbage and tomatoes. They were drizzled with a bit too much tangy, creamy dressing.

The chilaquiles, a Mexican classic, was a plate of delights with fried tortillas bolstering hunks of succulent beef, tomatoes, onions, sour cream and a silky verde salsa. (Red salsa is another choice.) A side salad and refried beans rounded out the dish.

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For dessert, the tres leche cake was a moist wedge of two-layer vanilla cake perched on a satiny, three-milk sauce. We liked it, even though we could not detect the walnuts that were advertised on the menu, nor was it topped with fruit. A lone strawberry was a garnish with a dollop of whipped cream.

The Carlota, served in a tall ice cream dish, was an excellent chilled finish with a slightly tart lemon-cream flavor. Another dessert, an individual flan, made the whole dinner worthwhile. The Spanish baked custard, coated with caramel, was a sweet ending.

Habaneros Mexican Kitchen, which also serves breakfast on weekends, brings warmth and sincerity to Carroll County. It's very likable. With a few adjustments, the restaurant will be able to reach its potential.

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