Restaurant review: Liquor-licensed Hass raises the bar on fast-casual Mexican

By Columbus Alive
From the February 6, 2014 edition

Based on its rather opaque name — which it borrows from the common avocado — you can’t tell much about Hass. After a couple visits, though, it becomes clear that bright, new Hass is a “fast casual” Mexican restaurant that serves alcohol plus inexpensive and damn good taco truck-style food, some of it smoke-scented by a wood-fired grill.

Literally joined to La Favorita grocery store, order-at-the-counter Hass looks like the prototype for a sleek and smart fast food chain. I actually hope it is.

Diners in Hass’s tidy little space are greeted with mild whiffs of wood smoke, terra cotta colored walls, soccer on a large TV, al pastor meat sizzling on a spit, flashing photos of food behind the counter and friendly faces. Soon after ordering, they’re also greeted with a free styrofoam mini-cup of soupy “ranchera beans” perfectly seasoned with bacon and chorizo.

For more taste bud limbering up, order a cold Mexican beer ($3), zesty micheladas ($5), drinkable margaritas or a refreshing cantarito (Mexican grapefruit soda jazzed up with citrus juice and tequila, $6), which scores bonus points for being served in a neat clay cup with a lime-chili-salted rim. Now eat a lot for not a lotta money.

The smallish menu — largely tacos, tortas and burritos — offers a few rarities like the meatless Taco Verde ($1.75). Stuffed in a take-notice homemade flour tortilla were nopalitos (defanged prickly pear cactus) whose tanginess was ratcheted up by salsa and smoothed out by melted cheese and smoky potatoes.

The same campfire-y spuds formed the basis for the massive and stonerific Papa Caliente ($10). It’s an irresistible kitchen-sinker that tops smoked tubers with a bunch of bacon, mushrooms, cheese, salsa and this place’s distinctively smoky carne asada (chopped steaky strips; what this beef might lack in tenderness, it makes up for in flavor).

Carne asada also adorns the fun-munching Lorenza ($2). Here, the beef was treated to a comforting blanket of melted Oaxacan cheese, a crunchy fried flour tortilla plus bold garnishes galore. Two bucks!

Though not structurally sound, my Mexican sub-like tortas ($8) tasted great too. Puffy and toasted nice buns get loaded with beans, your meat-of-choice (they’re all flavorful) and an entourage of lusty fixins (e.g. avocado, salsa, jalapeno, etc.) that could turn your cable bill into an interesting sandwich.

Every taco I tried — without explanation, some came on nice warm corn tortillas; other times they arrived on top-notch flour tortillas — was “I think I’ll have another” good. Since worthy shrimp tacos are relatively hard to find, I’ll give Hass’s didn’t-skimp-on-the-shrimp, crisply beer-battered winners a shout out ($3 apiece, garnished with zingy mayo, salsa and cabbage). But Hass’s equally big and crispy fish tacos ($2; dressed similarly to the shrimp), and saucy and authentic al pastor ($1.75), fatty but flavorful carnitas ($2) and smoky chicken all deserve a strong mention too.

In short, nothing I had at Hass was even close to a stinker. In fact it makes you think of how much better its competitors in the quick-and-cheap eats business could really be. Here’s hoping Hass is so successful that it expands all over the city (or at least to my Clintonville ’hood) and forces scores of going-through-the-motions underperformers to up their game.

Nah, I ain’t holding my breath on that.

Photos by Tim Johnson