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Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot at Habanero's in Waltham

Owner Terry Knight talks about what sets Habanero's Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar apart from other restaurants (hint: it's served at the bar) and why he's not your typical restaurant owner

Most restaurateurs have had some sort of culinary training or at least have had the benefit of coming from a home where food was a central part of their family life.

Not Terry Knight, who on Sept. 17 opened on Moody Street.

“I grew up on grilled cheese,” he laughingly states when asked about his background. “I don’t like to cook at all. I don’t have the patience!”

But, that doesn’t mean that Knight is a stranger to running a business.  He started out as a sales trainer for a pharmaceutical company but left in 1994 when his father fell ill and he had to take over the family business of oil heat distribution.

In 2000, Knight started a construction equipment rental service in his hometown of Melrose. In fact, he still owns this business but Habanero’s has been taking up the lion’s share of his time.

“I’m here about 80 to 85 hours a week,” Knight says ruefully. “I’m kind of a one-man show.”

But, it’s this attention to the business and hands-on management style that make Habanero’s work. Knight wants his customers to have the most “authentic, fresh” dining experience possible.

With that in mind, he made a significant change three weeks ago by hiring three-time Boston Magazine Best of Boston Award-winner Jim Fahey to cook and reconfigure the menu.

“We want to move away from Tex-Mex and more towards, if I can say this, an upscale flavor profile,” Knight explains when discussing his new chef. “Jim knows the cuisine and the regions, and he knows how to prepare the home-cooked dishes.”

New items may be drawn from a recent specials menu that included Pescado Zarandeado (mahi mahi over smashed potatoes with salsa, black beans, guacamole and shrimp ceviche) and Pollo Tlaxacala (grilled chicken thighs in green chile sauce with Swiss chard and Mexican cheese).

Food isn’t the only authentic part of Habanero’s offerings. They also focus on providing a varied selection of beverages at their bar.

Knight and his bar manager, Dave Nugent, now offer over 80 different types of tequila. They also have five infused tequilas: blueberry-lemon, strawberry-mango, watermelon, pineapple-habanero pepper with black peppercorns, and peach-pear.

The restaurant boasts a full selection of drinks made with these tequilas and a list of “Bloody Marias” made with fresh-squeezed tomatoes. In fact, all of the juices used in Habanero’s drinks are made from fresh-squeezed fruit. Much of their alcohol comes from small, family-owned distilleries that Knight says reflect both the quality and the authenticity of his restaurant.

This isn’t the only thing that sets Habanero’s apart from the numerous other Mexican and Latin American restaurants in Waltham: they also have gluten-free tortillas and chips. Chef Fahey has a sister with celiac disease and recognizes the need to be very particular in his food preparation.

“You just have to separate things,” he explains. “You make your corn tortillas fresh by hand, and you make your chips from those so they’re both gluten-free. And you keep that separate from the flour tortillas.”

More innovations are coming to the restaurant in the next few weeks. By the middle of December, or possibly sooner, Habanero’s will be offering an authentic Mexican brunch on Saturdays and Sundays with every item under $10. They will include items like different variations on huevos (not just your traditional “ranchero”) and a pozole (a soup with hominy and chorizo topped with a poached organic egg, sour cream, bacon, shredded cabbage and served with a grilled cheese quesadilla).

Habanero’s will also be co-hosting more events with their distributors. Based on the success of their recent shindig with Lunazul Tequila and their opening party, which are documented on Habanero’s Facebook page, these are not to be missed.

Knight is taking Habanero’s success in stride but is excited about the fact that he is already part of the Waltham community.

“We already have people who come in two or three times a day!” Knight exclaims. “We want to be on a first-name basis with everyone.”

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