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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Familiar Flavors

 

Azteca

4 Central Ave., Albany, 436-4795. Serving Mon-Thu 11-10, Fri 11-11, Sat noon-11, Sun noon-9. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Mexican

Entrée price range: $9.50 (two-item combina tion) to $17 (shrimp fajitas)

Ambiance: casual

 

By B.A. Nilsson

Dinner 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.

What 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.

Azteca 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.

She’s 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.”

Decor 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.

Lunch 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.

Those 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 items).

The fajita 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 for $12.50.

Things 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).

You can 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 beans.

Chicken 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.

Some 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.

Because 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.

Spinach 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.

The single 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 visit.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

In this space last week (May 31), we incorrectly reported that the cost of Nicole’s Bistro’s annual Cucina Sinatra—celebrating the late singer with music and his favorite meal from Jilly’s Restaurant in Manhattan—is $100 per person plus tax and tip. Rather, the $100 includes tax and tip. The event will be on June 14; call 465-1111. . . . Milano (Newton Plaza, Route 9, Latham) features an exceptional winemaker dinner at 7 PM on June 14, featuring Roberto Stucchi Prinetti of Tuscan-based Badia a Coltibuono, a winery in the heart of the Chianti region. An appropriately Tuscan menu will feature a variety of antipasti paired with Badia a Coltibuono Roberto Stucchi Chianti Classico 2005; enjoy duck confit with forest mushrooms alongside a Cancelli (Sangiovese/Syrah) 2004 and a mustard-herb-crusted Berkshire pork rack with a Chianti Classico Estate Riserva 2001 and an acclaimed 2000 Sangioveto. Dinner is $65 per person (plus tax & gratuity), and you can reserve seats by calling 783-3334. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food at banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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