Posted October 14, 2005 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

Habanero Hots Restaurante

The Record
Published Thursday, Oct 13, 2005

Walking into Habanero Hots Restaurante and Salsa Co. is like biting into the famed chili pepper itself — plain on the outside, but full of taste and fire on the inside.

From the street, the Mexican restaurant, cantina and hot-sauce shop looks squatty and industrial, taking up one end of a nondescript building on a slab of parking lot only a few yards from its exit off Highway 99 in Lodi.

But inside, there’s some immediate bite in the entryway — either from the huge, grinning shark hanging overhead or from the dozens of bottles of hot sauce, ranging from “Blair’s Original Death Sauce” a skull hangs from the bottle to “Crazy Jerry’s Brain Damage Mind Blowin’ Hot Sauce” a pink fake brain is on the cap. Customers then are led through a cozy bar area, past the “Wall of Flame” and seated in a warm dining room that’s low-key festive tile, brick and wood and surprisingly cheery, after the bland impression left by the exterior.

“We’re getting ready to change that, remodel the outside, we just acquired the building and we’re going to make it look a little more fun,” Hots owner John DeNigris said.

During a recent evening-rush visit, a basket piled high with hot chips and a dish of chunky salsa arrived at the table immediately, along with the menus. Appetizers include Texas armadillo eggs jalapeño poppers, $6.99 for a half dozen, bean and chorizo dip $4.99 or queso con chili $5.99, the popular cheese dip.

Familiar Mexican dishes are packed onto the three-page menu of entrées and include enchiladas, tostados, tacos, burritos, chile verde and chili Colorado.

Hots’ menu is based on family recipes that have been handed down through four generations of the Solis family, from whom DeNigris bought the restaurant in 1996.

“I’ve been here 25 years. My first job as a freshman in high school when I was 16 years old was here as a dishwasher,” DeNigris said. “They sort of took me under their wing and taught me how to cook.”

Entrees come with small salads featuring the popular house dressing, which tastes similar to Thousand Island and sides of rice and beans.

During the visit last week, every dish arrived in a timely manner and at the right temperature.

The cheese dip was thick enough to stretch more than a foot from bowl to chip scissors, please. It’s made with four cheeses cheddar, Monterey jack, pepper jack and queso fresco and large chunks of fresh tomatoes, onions and jalapeños, and served with folded mini-tortillas warm and light crispy flour chips, which were worth fighting over.

Of the two entrées ordered, the La Bomba Combo Burrito reg. $8.99, grande $9.99 wowed the table, though the No. 7 “Que Pasa” combo plate $10.99, featuring an enchilada, a taco and Chicana steak tri-tip in a peppery stewlike sauce was almost as pleasing.

The La Bomba Combo grande version — about the size of Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22 sneaker — was stuffed with Chicana steak and chili Colorado, oven baked and topped with a ranchero sauce and a green salsa. Its flavor was equal to its size.

The combo plate featured a taco ground beef piled with filling, an enchilada ground beef with a choice of three sauces, and a saucy serving of tender, bite-size Chicana steak that covered one side of the oval platter.

The restaurant also offers 150 different kinds of tequila, and there are “thousands” of pictures on the “Wall of Flame” of people who have survived the “Eat the Heat” challenge — eat a habanero pepper “down to the stem, without accompaniment.” On the Scoville scale, the habanero has 300,000 units of hotness, compared with the jalapeño, which has only 5,000. Besides enshrinement on the wall, successful pepper eaters also get a free T-shirt. Jeff Hood, Lodi bureau chief for The Record, successfully took the challenge five years ago — and his tongue-replacement surgery went very, very well.

“I’ve seen the biggest, meanest Harley guys cry like a little baby,” DeNigris said.

However, DeNigris pointed out that “none of our food is served really hot unless it’s requested. The chef always has fresh habaneros. We have customers who come in and ask to kick it up. We have the big guns, if people want them.”

A copy of The Record’s restaurant-review policy and recent reviews can be viewed on the Web at www.recordnet.com. Go to LENS, the Dining page.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog