A sizzling fajita turns heads at taquerias, places filled with other sensory delights — warm colors, potent smells, and bright music. But a crackling, slightly steaming fajita can halt a room of conversations.
At Howling Wolf Taqueria, an ornate family-friendly spot in Salem’s center, the fajitas don’t just sizzle, they smoke. As a plate arrives at an adjacent table, one nearby patron complains, “It’s going right in my eyes.” Others cough. Even a manager and minority partner, navigating the restaurant, has to stop to clear his throat. Finally, the staff opens the front door to get rid of the cloud that has gathered, even though it’s a chilly night. Waiting customers, who had huddled in the front entrance to escape the cold, simply shiver.
This is not an isolated incident. Other fajitas are ordered and the door is again propped open. But while it may be an inconvenience to fellow customers, it’s a stark indication that Howling Wolf’s dishes are fresh and served right off the grill.
Food arrives at lightning speed. In fact, after delivering a heaping plate of nachos ($10.95), the server advises us to refrain from placing our dinner order so we have adequate time to make a dent in the mountain of grilled chicken, Jack and cheddar cheese, sweet and spicy salsa, black beans, and more. Another appetizer, the addictive chili con queso ($4.50), is the bigger threat to spoil your dinner. Its delicious white cheese and chili blend is reminiscent of Bukowski Tavern’s White Trash Cheese Dip, one of the city’s best.
Ground beef enchiladas ($8.75) and Real Texas Chili ($4.95 cup; $7.50 bowl) stand out among the entrees. The enchiladas, served in corn tortillas, are juicy, spicy, and smothered in cheese. The chili offers slow-cooked Angus sirloin so tender it falls apart in your mouth, mixed with peppers, Spanish onions, cilantro, and, since this is a Texas chili, no beans.
A server double-checks to make sure one customer can handle the extra spicy Howling Wolf burrito ($10.95). The combination of shredded beef, pinto beans, bacon, guacamole, and chili con queso is indeed fiery, thanks to the howling salsa. It’s a massive heap swimming in a visually stunning Christmas chili sauce. Fajita burrito ($9.95), with grilled chicken breast, bell and poblano peppers, and onions, is flavorful and also enormous, but fails to make the same impression.
Two Wolf favorites, carne asada ($12.95) and pollo crema ($9.95), fall short of the burritos and enchiladas. Carne asada is adequate, with a strong grill flavor and lean meat, but the flavor of the pollo crema’s chicken breast, rubbed with pepper and mild chili, is suffocated in an overbearing mushroom cream sauce. The finale, a flan ($4.95), is typical Mexican restaurant fare.
Though Howling Wolf appears to have been embraced by locals, it’s also a work in progress. Since opening in August 2010 with counter ordering and takeout, 70-seat table service started about a year ago. A full liquor license arrived only two weeks ago. Owner Patrick Schultz, a California native who runs the restaurant with his wife and two children, says they recently renovated the patio for summer. As for those smoky fajitas, Schultz admits they’re also being fine-tuned.
“It’s a new menu item and they’re not letting the fajitas sit in the kitchen long enough so the smoke dissipates,” he says. “We had to not serve them for a couple weeks until we had our smoke detectors changed for heat detectors because the fire alarm kept going off. I’ve seen people waving away the smoke and I don’t think there’s much charm in that.”
But Howling Wolf Taqueria still offers plenty of charm, with huge servings of fresh food at reasonable prices. There’s just a little smoke yet to be cleared out.