price range: $9.50 (two-item combina tion) to $17 (shrimp
starts to get exciting when surprises come your way, whether
it be a terrific-looking restaurant, an unexpected flavor
or an inventive take on a familiar dish. American cooking
has a deserved reputation for boringness; only when we entered
into a so-called fusion with other Americas—and other parts
of the world—did our cuisine once again come alive.
we expect from a Mexican restaurant typically is an Americanization
of Mexican fare, reaching an apotheosis of silliness at the
likes of Taco Bell. So it’s the mission of many a post-TB
Mexican eatery to drag the cuisine back from the fast-food
realm and remind us that there actually can be complexities
of flavor. Not to mention a decent burrito.
has been open for nearly a year, at a Central Avenue space
that’s seen its share of restaurants. Business has been increasing,
says owner Margaret Meris, especially since their beer-and-wine
license came through. And she promises that margaritas and
piña coladas will be added soon.
quick to credit the many who have helped her bring this, her
first restaurant, to fruition. Even the name, she explains,
was a collaborative decision. “My father was American Indian
and Mexican,” she says, “and I never got to know him.” She
later became much more aware of his history, which led her
into an even broader appreciation of Mexican history. Thus
the name. “The Aztecs fall into one of those areas of history
people aren’t very familiar with,” she says. “So our name
should make them think about it. Also, we have ceramic artworks
from Mexico on display, and each piece tells a little bit
of the story.”
is thoughtful without being elaborate. Two dining rooms are
separated by a long hallway with a bar in the middle, above
which a silent TV demands too much attention.
is a bargain, with a burrito (or enchilada, chalupa, tostada,
taco, among others) and rice and beans for $4.50. More complicated
combos run from $5 to $7.
combos also are available for dinner. The two-item plate is
$9.50; adding a third will run a dollar more. We sampled a
combo with a beef-filled burrito and beef-topped tostada,
dressed with the usual array of lettuce, tomatoes and cheese,
and served with the ubiquitous rice and beans. Which established
an unsurprising pattern. Although the food quality here is
far better than many a similar establishment, it’s still assembly-line
stuff. Compared to the assembly line at, say, Moe’s, Azteca
is a flavor wonderland. But you’ll meet the same flavors from
entrée to entrée (until you veer into some of the specialty
quesadilla ($12.50), for instance, makes the same argument
even with chicken, adding familiar veggies and seasoning,
but finishing it with a more complicated sauce (pico de
gallo) within the wrapping. More traditional fajitas,
served with wrap-it-yourself tortillas, also are available
change when you head for items like tacos on the grill ($12.50
each, a dollar more for a combo), available with any or all
of the usual fillings. A number of steak specials include
serving the meat with onions, peppers and tomatoes ($13.50),
ranchera sauce ($13.50) or alongside shrimp ($15.50).
get an extra-large burrito for $12, a four-enchilada combo
for $10, pork tips and onions (carnitas dinner) for
$12.50 or go all the way for $15 and challenge yourself with
a burrito, enchilada, taco, tamale and chalupa. And rice and
attracts some of the most inventive presentations (all chicken
entrées are $12.50). You can get it covered with cream or
served with a mole poblano or mole ranchera.
The former is what’s best known as a mole—a rich, chocolate-enhanced
sauce with impressive complexity—although I chose the latter
for my dish, and was served what I suspect is a sweeter, redder
sauce. But it complemented the chicken excellently—in fact,
the sauce seemed to provide more flavor than the poultry.
unusual dishes we sampled included a black-bean soup ($4)
that tasted like nothing more than an undrained can of beans
that’s opened, heated and served. Appetizers feature familiar
items like nachos ($5 to $10, depending upon how elaborate
you wish the plate be, and whether there’s shrimp involved),
quesadillas and guacamole.
we already were served a basket of warm chips with good salsa,
I looked for a different guacamole spin and found it in a
salad ($4.50) that proved to be an unusual-tasting combo of
avocado, mayonnaise and Tabasco, served over shredded lettuce.
Too rich to combine with an entrée, so I made another meal
out of the taken-home leftovers.
dip, chile beans and Aztecas dip give you salsa alternatives.
We sampled the bean dip ($4) and found a thick soup that easily
could have been reworked to flavor the black-bean brew.
server working the floor had her hands full when we visited,
nearly stranding us without silverware at one point. But she
brought an infectious cheerfulness to the evening, an important
part of the generally enjoyable experience we took from this