Tasty, authentic food, even if you have to wait

CorrespondentJune 24, 2011 

  • 1929 Chapel Hill Road, Durham


    Cuisine: Mexican


    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: modest but colorful

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: eager-to-please, can be slow when busy

    Recommended: empanadas, platanos fritos, borrego, posole (available only on weekends)

    Open: breakfast Saturday-Sunday, lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted for large parties

    Other: beer only; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Painted in large freehand letters across the windows framing the entrance to Azteca Grill is a list of the restaurant's selection of tacos, tortas and weekend specials. To a fan of authentic Mexican food, the words - "lengua," "azada," "milanesa" and "posole," to name a few - are an irresistible invitation.

Even if you're a little intimidated by the Spanish, step inside anyway. The full menu you'll be handed when you're seated is bilingual, with clear and concise descriptions of each dish in English.

Granted, the description of, say, borrego - "Spicy lamb. Served with rice, beans and salad." - doesn't elaborate on the rich complexity of the brick red sauce, or the fact that the lamb is a bone-in shank, slowly simmered to fork tenderness in that sauce. You'll forgive the omission.

If you have questions,you can always ask Martha Arguelles, ever-present waitress and daughter of the restaurant's owners. When I ordered the platanos fritos the first time my wife and I visited Azteca Grill, Arguelles said they were out of plantains - but if we were willing to wait, her dad would run across the street and buy some from the tienda.

The wait turned out to be surprisingly short. In no time, Ruben Godinez had fetched the required fruit, and his wife, Magaly Turrubiates, had sliced them lengthwise, fried them to a golden brown turn and plated them up with a dish of crema for dipping.

The rest of the meal lived up to that same standard, starting with rustically thick chips cut from corn tortillas that are - like pretty much everything here - made in-house. Oysters on the half shell, presented on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and lime wedges, were as plump and pristine as you'd find at a good raw bar.

My wife's order of camarones al mojo de ajo served up garlicky jumbo shrimp, green peppers and onions in such abundance that she didn't object when I snagged more than I needed, strictly speaking, for tasting purposes. In return, I reluctantly shared bites of my borrego.

As I paid at the cash register, I complimented Arguelles on the food and the surprisingly quick turnaround on the plantains. She pointed out that it was a weeknight and that the restaurant wasn't busy. Service isn't always so fast on Fridays and Saturdays, she warned me, when the restaurant opens at 7 a.m. and the dining room fills up with people getting their fix of menudo, posole, lamb barbacoa tacos and other weekend specials.

The food is worth the wait, though, especially if you get there reasonably early. By late evening, the otherwise excellent homemade tamales (steamed in corn husks and generously filled with pork, chicken or cheese) can get a little dry at the ends. Posole, on the other hand, a savory stew of pork and hominy in a chile-reddened broth, holds up just fine - and may even get better as the day wears on. Same goes for other meal-in-a-bowl soups and stews such as caldo de res (oxtail soup), caldo de pollo and the famous stewed-tripe hangover cure, menudo.

Peak weekend hours are midmorning to midafternoon, when the place can get really busy - and noisy, with soccer matches on TV and Tejano music in the background adding to the din. Time your visit accordingly, depending on your tolerance for a bustling atmosphere and whether you're in a hurry.

Fortunately, there are plenty of reasons to visit Azteca Grill, even if you prefer to avoid the weekend rush entirely. Chief among those reasons are empanadas: thick, delicately crisp cornmeal pastries filled with your choice of shredded beef or chicken (both succulent) or queso blanco. They're served in threes, so why not get one of each?

Other temptations, which I haven't yet had a chance to sample, include camarones a la crema, shrimp cooked in a chile-blushed sour cream sauce; authentic carnitas; and - a rarity in these parts - chicken in a homemade mole sauce.

Arguelles says carne asada and mojarra frita (fried tilapia) are the most popular dishes. She also says that her mom makes a great caldo 7 mares, a dish whose name ("soup of the seven seas") is a poetic reference to the abundance and variety of seafood in the bowl. Can't wait to try that one


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