Still no ole for the mole


My search for the perfect mole has been thwarted again. Outside of the Mexican state of Oaxaca (the Land of the Seven Moles), it seems that a really good version of these dark, rich sauces is hard to find. My consolation is this: Even an unremarkable mole is a lovely thing.

El Azteca's chicken mole is, like much of the food on the menu, pleasant and plentiful but unlikely to cause a stir.

Owner Gilberto Cortes has been in the business of cooking casual Mexican food for more than 20 years, and he seems to have his job down cold. With his wife, Chica, he opened El Azteca more than three years ago as a community-oriented place where families can kick back and relax. The restaurant's unadorned square room fairly swells with good cheer and, on Sunday evenings, strains of live mariachi music.

On the evening of our visit, the good cheer did not extend to our waiter. A grim fellow, he seemed unimpressed by our efforts to win him over, and even less interested in the specifics of our order.

Undeterred, we began with a round of margaritas. Blended or on the rocks, the "Cadillac" version is nice. A drizzle of Grand Marnier on top distinguishes it from the regular. As is de rigueur, we nibbled the free chips and salsa while we sampled our drinks. The chips were garden-variety unsalted tortilla triangles, the salsa a cooked tomato puree with chunks of fresh tomato and onion and a slow burn.

I delayed gratification by sampling the black bean soup before diving into an order of chicken mole. The deep purple broth harbored nicely tooth-resistant whole beans. The soup was nourishing and simple but would have benefited from a little salt or a sprinkling of cilantro.

A heavier hand with the herbs and spices might have enlivened many of our entrees. Nonetheless, an order of "fiesta fajitas" pleased the bunch (although at $12.95, it wasn't exactly a bargain). Our waiter presented the platter of steak, chicken and shrimp while it was still crackling and spitting. Smoky, sweet onions, green peppers and charred tomato wedges completed the dish, which we heaped onto flour tortillas with sour cream, guacamole, rice and refried beans.

The tomato-moistened rice and rich refried beans accompanied all of our entrees, from a Mexican combination platter to my much-anticipated chicken mole. The former was a bean burrito nestled against a chicken enchilada under a thick mantle of molten cheese. The mole brought sliced white-meat chicken ladled with a dusky sauce that tasted faintly of chilies, chocolate and dark coffee.

Our fourth entree, the Guadalajara special, ended up being our favorite dish. Tender short ribs were glazed with a piquant and just-sweet chili sauce. They were served with flour tortillas in addition to rice and beans.

The dessert list covers all the Mexican classics. The three we tried were agreeable but unexceptional. Flan (egg custard) was homey, with a touch too much cinnamon; fried ice cream was simply vanilla ice cream in a crisp fried tortilla shell; and mil hojas was like a Napoleon, layering crisp pastry with cream.

El Azteca

12210 Route 108, Clarksville

(410) 531-3001

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.75-$6.95; entrees, $8.50-$12.95

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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