Enjoy a regal meal at Azteca

08/03/2008 12:00 AM

08/03/2008 6:26 PM

Azteca Mexican restaurants are a reminder that North America was home to storied civilizations before the Spanish arrived.

The cover of the menu shows the faces of 12 Aztec emperors who reigned from 1325 to 1520.

Diners also see an image of the pyramids on the island of Tenochtitlan, which was the center of the Aztec empire and now is the site of Mexico City.

Perhaps the best way to revisit the ancient Indians is through the plates served here. Choose carefully, and the meals are nothing short of regal, blending indigenous ingredients and modern flair.

“We have plates that take us back to the emperors' time,” said Pedro Santillan, co-owner of three Azteca restaurants with Jose Arceo, “and we have the foods that we eat today in Mexico.”

The pair opened a 135-seat Azteca restaurant on Woodlawn Road in 1994.

Within a year, diners were waiting in the parking lot each day for the doors to open at lunchtime.

“There were no restaurants like this,” said Santillan, whose company now has sister restaurants in the Northlake Mall area and Matthews.

Enchiladas, burritos and fajitas are on the menu, but there's much more to know about Mexico. Camarones a la Diabla, for example, is among the recipes from the ethnic group we know today as the Aztecs.

It's a simple dish of sautéed prawns served with a hot chile salsa, avocado and, of course, tortillas ($12.25).

Santillan said chiles were used throughout ancient Mexico. Mild ones added flavor, while others offered stinging heat.

Many traditional Mexican meals still rely on agricultural products that indigenous cultures grew. They mashed avocados with a stone mortar and pestle we know as the molcajete.

The Aztecs also ate cacti and beans, and they served every meal with a cornmeal flatbread called tlaxcalli. They wrapped it around vegetables or meat as Mexicans – and Americans – would use tortillas today.

“If I'm eating Mexican food, there's no way I can eat without tortillas,” Santillan said. “In Mexico, everybody eats tortillas.”

Azteca works hard to present Mexican food as a diverse cuisine. Remember to ask for a picture menu to see the best of the best illustrated in photographs.

That includes more than a dozen hearty combination meals that arrive on 13-inch round plates, which seem bigger than any others in the industry.

“We wanted to distinguish ourselves,” Santillan said. “In most of the places in Mexico, you get big plates.”

The best-selling dish is Fiesta Jalisco, named for the owners' hometown. The west-central Mexican state is also the home of mariachi bands, tequila and the Cora Indians.

Charcoal-grilled steak, called arrachera, is a favorite in Jalisco, Santillan said. Fiesta Jalisco presents it with three taquitos (chicken rolled inside flour tortillas) and plenty of side dishes ($15.95).

The sides include Mexican rice and beans, cactus salad, grilled green onions and sour cream – flavors from the old empire beside additions from the modern world.

“American people go to different sides of Mexico,” Santillan said.

“I wanted to offer the most for what they have learned. We're presenting plates from around 25 of the 31 states or different regions in Mexico.”

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