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To Havana and Have Not

But then, there are so many other dishes to try. An order of sopa Azteca ($3.25) brought a bowl of a pungent, tomato-reduction broth, thickened with tortilla strips and topped with so much melted Jack cheese it was like a Mexican French onion soup. The shrimp fajitas ($9.99) were wonderful: citrus-marinated shrimp grilled with green peppers and onions, then brought to the table crackling and sputtering and begging to be piled into tortillas and dipped in the lemony, oniony juice on the still-hot platter. The chile relleno burrito ($4.49) was a marvel, too: a sturdy baked Anaheim surrounded by white rice and black beans, then wrapped in a flour tortilla. I ordered it smothered, and by the time I was halfway through, my eyes started to roll back in my head; the remainders made for a handy breakfast burrito the next day.

And then, of course, there's the rotisserie chicken ($7.25), an El Azteca trademark. The kitchen takes half a bird, rubs it with salt, herbs and spices and then marinates it in a sweet-tart brew of pineapple and lemon juices; the next day it's slowly spit-roasted. Every time we've tried it, the result has been crisp, tangy skin encasing juicy, lemon-scented flesh so soft it's almost unnatural. The bird comes with rice, a choice of beans and a pile of warm tortillas. We always throw in a side of hand-mashed guacamole ($2.50), whose mellowed garlic and lemon tones work perfectly smeared on the leftover tortilla shreds.

So far, the only disappointment I've encountered at either El Azteca was the filete al mojo de ajo ($9.99), a fillet of orange roughy grilled and drowned in what the menu called "garlic sauce." But "raw garlic puree" would have been more accurate, so strongly acerbic was the garlic flavor. That taste not only blocked out the fish, which otherwise seemed fine, but it kept reappearing in my mouth for about three days. Fortunately, we'd ordered the fish on Cuban night, so we just pushed the dish aside and concentrated on the picadillo instead. A final dish of flan ($2.25), an honorable rendition with plenty of caramel sauce and a firm but satiny texture, helped clear the palette, as did a slice of the tried-and-true cheesecake ($2.25), unique to El Azteca, with a light filling and cinnamon-bolstered graham cracker crust that gave it a distinctly South American quality. Garlic, be gone. We washed the desserts down with two impeccable mixes of horchata ($1.50), the rice version of the drink with its own cinnamon flavor and milky consistency.

Go to El Azteca on Thursdays for the Cuban food, or go any day for great Mexican food. But go: Now that Denver finally has a restaurant that serves great Cuban cuisine, we don't want to lose it.

El Azteca Grill & Cantina,
1780 South Buckley Road, Aurora, 755-2735.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday.

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