Here in the Northland, we have many great things—great trails, great community, great lake—but one thing that’s hard to find is great Mexican food.
Hacienda Del Sol used to be a safe haven until it was done in by a kitchen fire in 2011. Mexico Lindo is Chi-Chi’s all over again. Little Angie’s is absurdly un-Mexican and their pre-mix margarita mess is unpalatable (ask them to make you one from scratch and you will receive a vacant stare). A slew of excellent bartenders have come up with delicious margarita recipes, but the food to match has eluded us.
Then one day, while shopping up over the hill, we stopped in at Azteca’s Mexican Grill at 2224 Mountain Shadow Drive in a strip mall near the Miller Hill Mall. Strip malls are an instinctive turn-off for us, but we decided to take a chance.
Even from the front of the building, Azteca’s has promise and the atmosphere inside is delightful—brilliantly colored walls, artistically designed booths, and upbeat Mexican music in the background.
We were greeted immediately with warm smiles, which seems like a simple expectation, but it’s gone out of style in many restaurants, so this was refreshing. Once seated, we were given menus along with fresh warm tortilla chips, homemade salsa, and—an added kick—refried beans.
We started off with the Guadalajara Shrimp. For $7.99, you get eight perfectly cooked shrimp, wrapped in crisp bacon with a side of fries. Fries are not exactly Mexican, but they made for a harmonious companion to the shrimp.
We then opted for the Nachos Supremos with shredded chicken, served over warm corn tortilla chips covered with melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and sour cream. Our final appetizer was the taco salad, a tortilla bowl filled with beef (chicken available), refried beans, lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, and topped with sour cream. The refried beans are not usual mushy Tex-Mex version, but firm and full of flavor, making this a bargain at $6.99.
For entrées, the shrimp tacos come with onions and peppers wrapped in a flour tortilla with fresh salsa on the side. Once again, the shrimp was cooked well and the flavor of the peppers exceptional.
Corn tortillas are always available. They have a slight crispness thanks to being properly prepared with a dash of oil.
My wife went for the Burrito and Enchilada Special—one of each topped with lettuce, sour cream and tomatoes, plus a side dish of fresh lime, cilantro, and pico de gallo. Not only was the presentation stylish, but offering the option to skip the cilantro is appealing. You either love cilantro or you don’t.
On an ensuing visit, I tried the Molcajete Azteca—grilled shrimp, scallops, tilapia, squash, Mexican onions, and nopales (cactus), marinated in tomatilla sauce and served in a traditional molcajete (similar to a mortar and pestle for grinding). This fabulous dish is served with rice, beans, guacamole salad, and tortillas. A bit spendy at $17.99, but worth the price.
One of their signature drinks, the Bruja’s Margarita, contains honeydew melon liquor, tequila, margarita mix, grenadine, and a cherry garnish. A nice balance of sweet and sour that I highly recommend to the discerning margarita explorer.
Azteca’s has a full bar and a handful of delightful tequila choices. For those not keen on alcohol, there are Jarritos, which means “little jug” in Spanish, in reference to the Mexican tradition of drinking water out of clay jugs. Jarritos is a highly carbonated citrus and soda concoction that matches spicy Mexican food, kick for kick.
Many restaurants thrive on serving large portions in a short time at the least expense, leading to low quality ingredients and a lot of microwaving. Mexican food is not difficult, but it requires personality and flavor, which Azteca’s provides in abundance.
Tom Walchuk has worked in the restaurant industry for most of his long life. He is currently a restaurant and event consultant for Tippy Toe Tunes, a collaborative endeavor he co-founded with like-minded restaurant manager/ consultants. He believes every restaurant is a journey and it takes your own creative decision-making for a good experience to materialize wheresoever ye wander.