To Havana and Have Not

In this town, Cuban food is rarer than a humid day. That's why, on Thursday nights, I make a break for El Azteca Grill & Cantina.

Sergio Hernandez, a Cuban immigrant, and his family have already proven themselves proficient with Mexican food--in fact, they serve some of the best in this state--with their first El Azteca, which they opened almost three years ago at 3960 South Federal Boulevard. But the original El Azteca is a tiny, liquorless place located in a converted gas station (that's why there's no "Grill & Cantina" attached to the name), with a menu limited to about a dozen individual items and every possible combination of those items. They're all impossibly good, thanks to incredibly fresh salsas and other prime ingredients. The rotisserie chicken is crisp-skinned on the outside and juicy on the inside, the Hawaiian torta a simple Mexican sandwich elevated to heavenly, gooey status. Still, a bowl of green--even great green--just isn't the same without a cerveza.

Hernandez knows that and so kept looking for a spot for a second restaurant. He found it in January, when he settled on a large, airy space in a busy Aurora plaza. This El Azteca is much more comfortable, with booths, a separate bar, and a bathroom you don't have to go through the kitchen to access, as you do at the Federal Boulevard location. Clean, bright and serving the same fabulous food--as well as many dishes not available at the original--the place is so appealing it should be packed all the time.

So far, though, the city's been slow to discover it. And it's even emptier on Thursday nights, when Hernandez throws in Cuban specials, such delightful dishes as arroz rellenos ($8.95), creamed chicken sandwiched between two layers of yellow rice, the whole deal topped with roasted red peppers and sided by sliced, floured and deep-fried plaintains; and picadillo ($7.50), a sort of hash made with ground seasoned pork, onions, tomatoes and lots of garlic, all pan-fried into a big mess of flavors that, when combined with white rice and black beans, makes for a soul-satisfying meal.

But you don't have to wait until Thursday to get a taste of Cuba. El Azteca cooks up Cuban-style white rice and black beans every day; you can substitute them for the side of refritos that come with the entrees. The thing that turns people off of black beans is that they're usually undercooked and hard, with a skin you could chew on for hours. But that's because few kitchens cook them long enough, fewer still remember to salt the water, which speeds the tenderizing process, and even fewer bother to pour off the water several times to get rid of as much of the gassy enzymes as possible (it's also critical to get the beans out of the water as soon as they're cooked). El Azteca is that rare place that cooks the beans absolutely perfectly, using chicken stock to boil them, adding some herbs for flavor, and pairing the beans with moist-but-not-sticky rice.

But El Azteca also does right by its refried beans; as with the Cuban dishes, the Mexican fare here relies more on herbs and less on grease or lard. That's apparent in the clean-tasting green chile, which is as good now as it was the first time I tasted it over two years ago: a semi-chunky concoction with a light chicken-stock base enhanced by cilantro, oregano and epazote. We got a side (75 cents) to smother the carne asada burrito ($3.99). The burrito itself was sizable, packed with sirloin tips sporting tangy, spice-crusted edges; a smattering of El Azteca's fresh-fresh pico de gallo, with its unerring balance of onions, jalapenos, tomatoes and cilantro, turned up the fiery flavors a notch or two.

The pico de gallo also added piquancy to the cheese quesadilla ($4.49). Jack and cheddar had been layered between jumbo flour tortillas, which were then brushed with something butter-like and fried until the outer flakes of the tortillas crisped like the edges of a pie crust. Topped with shredded cheddar, sour cream and that pico--whoa. So simple, yet so delicious that I order it every time I go to El Azteca.

The tortas are another thing I've ordered repeatedly. The house-made bread on these grilled Mexican sandwiches is always fresh, and that makes all the difference. The Hawaiian version ($4.50) has been a favorite since I first sampled it at the original El Azteca; I love the combination of grilled ham, pineapple and a mix of cheeses, all fused into a solid mass and moistened by guacamole and sour cream. But the carnitas torta ($3.99) offered at the second El Azteca was just as fine, filled with little bits of caramelized grilled pork. Also noteworthy was the spicier pork torta, the pastor, its fiery heat intensified by a layer of pico de gallo.

On some visits to the new El Azteca, I've been so engrossed with the chips and salsa that I never make it to the rest of the menu. (The first basket is free; subsequent ones cost $1.50.) And if it's one of those nights when you consider beer a food group, there's nothing better than munching on these freshly fried chips dipped into El Azteca's superb salsa of roasted tomatoes and serrano chiles.

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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