El Azteca is still among the best in Clarksville

Gilberto Cortes opened the doors of El Azteca in 1993. The storefront location in Clarksville is, arguably, the oldest Mexican eatery in the county. As venerable as it is (in restaurant years), El Azteca stills packs 'em in seven days a week.

It's probably not for the decor, which is pretty basic.

About 100 bare-top tables are arranged in the main dining room and in the separate eat-in bar area. Walls are a cheerful sponged-orange color; one of them boasting a huge tapestry with what we presume are Aztec symbols emblazoned upon it. Ceilings are relatively high and are hung with small chandeliers in the shape of what we think of as the Moravian star. (Go to Bethlehem, Pa., in December and you'll see what we mean.)

And the tables are really close together. We could actually feel the heat from the sizzling fajitas that were served to our nearest neighbors.

On the other hand, the ambience is quite festive.

When we visited that busy Sunday evening, there were several large parties and everyone (including the four of us) seemed to be having a good time. It could have been the live mariachi music that was pumping out toe-tapping Latino beats. It could have been the friendly servers, who still managed plenty of smiles — despite the fact that they were so busy.

We suspect, though, that the main reason locals keep crowding through the restaurant doors is the food.

Cortes bills it as "fine Mexican cuisine." Certainly, the menu features plenty of the dishes that we got used to when Mexican food got a solid foothold on American appetites. So you'll find tacos and burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas and fajitas. Some in more inventive combinations — like steak and sausage tacos and roasted pork enchiladas with green tomatillo sauce.

But whether inventive or more "traditional," you'll be hard-put to decide what you want here. Start with a crab, shrimp and mushroom quesadilla? Or maybe a Mexican seafood chowder? Move on to fish tacos? Or go vegetarian with a broccoli burrito? Or be a mite more adventurous with one of "Gilberto's Specialties" — like carne asada or rainbow trout a la Mantequila?

A big basket of warm, crisp corn tortilla chips and a couple of small bowls of house-made salsa (semi-chunky, with just-right heat) and an order of guacamole (smooth, ripe, creamy avocados with chunky tomatoes, onions and a good background glow) will help stave off your hunger pangs while you figure out what you want.

What we wanted

We (rediscovered) that whether you go "adventurous" or "traditional" at El Azteca, your food will arrive in good order (although it was a little slow on this particular evening), freshly prepared, appetizingly garnished and pleasantly served.

A beef tamal ($3.95) from the a la carte menu section served as an appetizer. No corn husks, just the steamed masa harina wrap over the moist, tender beef filling; enhanced by a mild enchilada sauce and shredded cheeses. Ample as a starter.

Rolled chicken taquitos ($7.95) — think Mexican egg rolls — featured plump, lightly fried, crisp flour tortillas wrapped tightly around flavorful shredded chicken, for a total of half-a-dozen little "logs" (actually three larger ones cut in half). The plate was nicely garnished, and featuring sour cream and guacamole on the side.

Another ample appetizer — cheese quesadilla ($7.50) — could be easily shared. This Mexican grilled cheese sandwich was made from a pair of very large flour tortillas, filled with melty cheese, cooked to a light golden finish, then cut into six large wedges. On an iceberg lettuce bed, with chunky house-made pico de gallo adding its pleasant heat to the occasion.

Even the ubiquitous chicken wing ($9.95) gets a special treatment here. Plenty of 'em — plump, moist inside and outside, and treated to a "Cholula" style chile de arbol sauce, which is relatively mild but definitely hails from way south of Buffalo. Plus, blue cheese dunk and celery. Again, plenty to share.

Main-ly yummy

Our two seafood lovers opted for El Azteca's treatment of traditional fare.

The fish tacos ($13.75) featured a pair of soft taco wrappers that were gently folded over some mild, grilled tilapia, which was topped with lettuce and pico de gallo. A zippy chipotle mayonnaise was served on the side, as were Mexican rice (tasty) and chewy-tender, cheese-topped black beans. There could have been a bit more fish in the tacos.

A crab and shrimp chimichangas ($14.75) was a large flour tortilla, loaded with intensely flavored seafood, onions and mushrooms, tightly wrapped and deep-fried, plated, topped with shredded lettuce and cheeses, then piped with sour cream. Fluffy, tomato-ey Mexican rice was served with it, along with tender, comforting refried beans.

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.

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 elaztecamaryland.com for a preview.

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