The Bite

Technically, El Azteca Grill & Cantina (1780 South Buckley Road in Aurora) qualified as the metro area's first Cuban restaurant -- but initially only on Thursdays. An offshoot of the El Azteca that sprang up several years earlier at 3960 South Federal Boulevard, when this spot opened three years ago, it not only served liquor (something the original lacked), but Cuban dishes, too. El Azteca owner Sergio Hernandez is married to a Cuban, Alicia Sanchez, and the zesty fare of her native country was an immediate, if once-a-week, hit.

Last year, the Aurora El Azteca finally put Cuban food on the menu full-time. So now on any day (excluding Sunday, when the restaurant is closed), you can count on finding beef-filled croquetas, fried plantains, comfort-foody picadillo (ground beef, potatoes and olives held together with a rich tomato sauce), chuletas de puerco (pork chops with onions and wine) and a half-dozen other Cuban specialties. Wash them down with an energizing shot of Cuban coffee: Café cubano is double the strength of regular coffee and served in little demitasses.

Of course, the Aurora outpost also serves the savvy Mexican fare and great rotisserie chicken that are such mainstays at the original El Azteca and a third spot, which opened two years ago at 303 16th Street in Republic Plaza. But neither of those places cooks up Cuban.

Drive, she said: Two errant motorists turned a couple of local restaurants into unexpected drive-throughs this month.

The Saucy Noodle (727 South University Boulevard) has seen more than its share of disasters. The eatery had closed -- briefly, its owners thought -- for remodeling in 1999 after a fire struck the building; all told, the Noodle was shuttered for fifteen months. This November, it will mark a full year of being back in business -- despite the drunk driver who smashed her car through the storefront restaurant's front window two weeks ago.

Although the Noodle will stay open through this round of repairs, Erin Markham admits the accident left the place looking a little shabby. "I'm tired of the boards already," says Erin, who, along with her husband, Nathan, runs the 37-year-old restaurant that was started by her father, Sam Badis. "But I just keep reminding myself, thank heavens no one was hurt."

Not long after the last customer had left, around 10:30 p.m., Nathan and a bartender were working in the back room and "jumped about a mile" when they heard the glass smash. "They thought it was someone breaking in, so they ran out the back," Erin says. "They were out there for a few minutes when they realized they couldn't hear anyone moving around. So they went back in, and there was this woman and her Lexus in the dining room. She was completely out of it, and it turns out that she totaled a Jeep Grand Cherokee on the way into our place."

The woman's insurance company is taking its time, so it could be another week or two before the front of the Noodle is fixed. In the meantime, an artist friend of the Markhams' has painted stars and stripes all over the boards. "That helps me keep it in perspective," Erin says. "Every time I tell Nathan that we have bad luck, he points out that we have a lot of luck. When the restaurant is open, there are always people sitting right up where that woman came through."

A week later, an accident at the corner of West 33rd Avenue and Tejon Street sent a car reeling through Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe (2005 West 33rd). Fortunately, the crash was on a Sunday, when the sixteen-year-old eatery is closed. "We had to close for two days because there was so much dust and dirt and pieces of stuff everywhere," says Eric Aguirre, one of the five Aguirre siblings who run the restaurant with their parents, Virgil and Rosa Linda. "Then I think people figured we were closed for a while, because we went several days without any business. But now it looks like we'll be okay."

The Subaru station wagon tore out the front door, so diners have to enter the restaurant through the back. Fortunately, Rosa Linda's got a quick answer from the insurance company and expects the front to be fixed before the end of next week. Like the Noodle's owners, the Aguirres consider themselves lucky. "On a typical day at this time of year, the tables that got smashed by that car would have had people sitting at them," Eric says. "I don't even want to think what could have happened."

The problem at Radex (116 East Ninth Avenue) wasn't a car (even though the restaurant faces busy Lincoln Street), but a small mechanical fire that broke out in the kitchen on October 16, forcing the eatery to close while the health and fire departments inspected the premises. In the meantime, one group of businesspeople who'd planned a lunch meeting at Radex instead headed to the nearby Spicy Pickle (988 Lincoln) -- only to return and find that their cars had been towed from the Radex-customers-only lot.

According to Radex owner Bucky Parker, who'd been in the hospital over the weekend and was recovering at home that day, one of his employees noticed that the parking lot was full even though the eatery was closed -- and so decided to have all of the cars towed. "I was pretty upset with the employee, to say the least," says Parker. "I haven't towed a customer in the three years I've been here, and to have it happen this way really made me angry."

Parker says he covered the towing (at $65 a pop) and gave the cars' owners $50 gift certificates to give the restaurant, which reopened by dinner that night, another try. "I hope they do," he says. "This kind of thing never makes for good business, and I want to make sure we do right by those people."

The Spicy Pickle, by the way, plans to open a third location at 150 South Union Boulevard in Littleton by the end of the month (the second is at 745 Colorado Boulevard). Manager of the Littleton outpost will be Tim Crawley, who's worked at several local eateries, including a bartending stint at jou jou (1106 14th Street).

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner