My prejudices about Mexican food being predictable, and often mediocre, have been put to rest.
It happened on a visit to El Azteca, a Mexican restaurant in Clarksville that actually dishes out nuance and surprise alongside the ubiquitous rice and beans. Stuck unceremoniously between a High's and a liquor store, El Azteca is owned by executive chef Gilberto Cortes and his wife, Francesca, who opened their restaurant in 1993.
Papier-mache parrots perch amid hanging plants at this small storefront, above tables covered in rose vinyl. On Sunday nights, strolling musicians serenade the tables. Food, not atmosphere, is the reason to come to El Azteca, though.
The menu includes the standard combination platters of tacos, burritos and enchiladas, but our advice is to order something a little different. For us, it was the albondigas, a special the night we visited. They're wonderfully moist meatballs that are spiked with rice and mint, simmered until they almost fall apart in a thick tomato-onion sauce, and topped with crumbly cotija cheese.
We felt as if we were trying chicken mole for the first time, because the thick mahogany sauce was so complex and intriguing. The owners import chocolate, chilies and seeds from Mexico to give it an authentic taste. The dish was an enormous portion, a mound of moist chicken breast meat cut into strips and arranged next to sides of mildly seasoned rice and creamy refried beans. Fresh vegetables or salad can be substituted for the beans, the rice or both.
By now, I've eaten my fill of fajitas, so even the flourish of steam coming off the cast-iron pan hardly catches my attention. But not all have been as well-executed as the shrimp fajitas at El Azteca. The jumbo shrimp, glazed with the smoky essence of the pan, were seared with green peppers and onions and cooked not a moment too long. We rolled them up in tortillas with guacamole, lettuce and pico de gallo.
If you manage to avoid eating the entire complimentary basket of warm, homemade tortilla chips that's brought to your table, try the taquitos for a starter. They're tightly rolled, quickly fried tortillas, filled with a faintly sweet mixture of shredded beef and soft corn masa. They struck me as a crisp, flavorful alternative to tamales.
There's nothing unusual about the quesadilla, but nothing disappointing either. Pieces of long-cooked chicken and a mix of cheeses are sandwiched between crisp tortillas.
On the other hand, a cup of chili tastes anything but ordinary. It could be the texture created by using both chunks of steak and ground beef, the cooked-from-scratch kidney beans, or the pure flavor of ground chilies, unmasked by other spices. The flat corn bread served with the chili is unusual, too - as dense, moist and buttery as a bar cookie.
As for dessert, the flan is acceptable, and so is a sundae of vanilla ice cream and strawberries, despite its topping of fried tortilla strips. But go with the sopaipillas, fried puffs of dough drizzled with honey. They are as authentic and appealing as the restaurant itself.
12210 Route 108, Clarksville
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$5.95; entrees, $6.75-$13.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 7/30/98