Another guest opted for a combination plate (two choices/$12.75). In this case, the duo comprised a big, oozy cheese enchilada and a beef taco. Mexican rice and refried beans were on the side.

From the "good, all good" grunts emanating from that side of the table, we assumed these offerings more than passed muster.

As owner/chef/manager, Cortes says he doesn't change his menu too often, because his regulars rely on him to provide all their traditional favorites. But his kitchen does feature a pair of daily specials, which he sometimes devises from inspiration garnered on frequent trips back to Mexico, including the Guadalajara area where he's from.

We tried one of those specials — the Tampiquena ($18.95). This one featured a nicely sized, nicely cooked, tender and juicy grilled steak which had been marinated in olive oil and citrus, imparting a pleasant tang to the meat. Topped with sauteed onions and mushrooms, this version of pepper steak was truly welcome. A cheese enchilada (soft and plump and full of oozy cheeses), plus refried beans and Mexican rice came with it.

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The dessert menu at El Azteca is separate from the regular menu, so it was easy for us — as full as we were — to pass up a post-prandial sweet. As we always say in consolation, "Maybe next time."

El Azteca (410-531-3001), 12210 Clarksville Pike (Route 108), Clarksville. Busy, festive Mexican restaurant, featuring satisfying, well-executed, nicely served favorites and daily specials that speak to the owner's creative side. No reservations, by the way.

Owner Gilberto Cortes said his grandmother had a little food stand in San Luis Soyatlan, where he's from, and he used to help her with prep work and busing. After he finished school in Mexico, he moved here and got back into the kitchen, again doing prep work and busing before moving up to more creative culinary pursuits and getting a big leg up at the late, and still lamented, Plata Grande on Dobbin, in Columbia. In short, Cortes is pretty much a self-taught cook (he doesn't consider himself a chef. But he obviously has a flair for the culinary arts.

Cortes actually owns three other Mexican eateries in the area, all named La Palapa. There's one in Ellicott City, one in Burtonsville and one in North Laurel on Montpelier Road. While he spends a portion of every day at El Azteca, he has entrusted "chef" Anselmo Portugues (from Texcoco, Mexico) with the Clarksville kitchen.

Cortes calls his food the "most authentic (Mexican) I can find." He notes that they emphasize seafood (on the specials and on the menu). Recently, though, they did a daily special that featured Cornish hens stuffed with shredded beef and chorizo, then topped with a wine sauce. You may also find lamb and/or pork shanks as specials.

Go to for a preview.