Appleton is blessed with a number of excellent ethnic restaurants located throughout the city. There is the Apollon only a short walk from campus for superb Greek food. Nakashima’s is well worth the long trek to the other side of town for excellent hibachi and sushi. Even Taste of Thai offers passable Thai food right on our doorstep. And the list goes on and on. Appleton has also recently experienced the fascinating phenomenon of strip mall ethnic cuisine. North and west of Lawrence, on Northland Avenue, is one of dozens of unassuming little plazas of shopping and restaurants that can be found throughout Appleton. But this one is different. A few years ago, it became home to the very good Indian restaurant Sai Ram (reviewed here first term) and last year, Koreana (also reviewed first term) moved to a much larger space right next door to Sai Ram in order to serve wonderful sushi and Korean fare to more than a lucky few in the know.
Now the strip mall at 201 West Northland has added a third restaurant to complete this would-be trinity. El Azteca recently opened in a large space next to Koreana. El Azteca, as you might guess, serves Mexican food. Like its College Avenue competition, Zacateca’s, El Azteca serves a wide selection of Mexican standards, both in complete meals and ala carte, and features an adequate selection of Mexican beers and margaritas. As at Zacataca’s, a diner at El Azteca is greeted with the customary red basket of warm tortilla chips and a dish of salsa, and is served by a courteous and attentive staff that never allows the chips or salsa to run out or your water glass to run dry while you wait for your chili relleno or pollo loco. Indeed, the comparisons with Zacateca’s don’t stop there. It would be no trouble to spend several more sentences covering the similarities between the two, and in fact if you have visited Zacateca’s as most Lawrentians have, it is my duty to inform you that you will not be surprised by El Azteca.
Herein lies the difficulty, though. Zacateca’s is an extremely frustrating restaurant. For all its staff’s attentiveness and its pleasant atmosphere and its well-prepared food, Zacateca’s serves remarkably uninspired Mexican food, and for the El Azteca to be no better is doubly frustrating. You will not find flaming hot burritos or enchiladas at either restaurant. You need not even be concerned with the dish of salsa billed as hot (in fact, I was only offered a dish of the mildest of salsas at El Azteca). In terms of fireworks, neither restaurant rises above the level of the refried beans and fried rice they offer as side dishes—side dishes that one counts on to quell the burn of truly surpassing Mexican food.
I said the food was well prepared, and I meant it. Zacateca’s seems to be a little better, I think, with fresher tasting tortillas and the option of shredded and ground beef, but El Azteca is not vastly inferior in these regards. I have never had a dish at either restaurant that was undercooked or sloppily prepared—that is, a dish that was truly bad. But I have never been impressed. I had a combination plate at El Azteca with a taco, burrito, enchilada, a quesadilla, and a tamale. Everything arrived in large portions with fresh salsa and guacamole. It was even a good deal at a little more than ten dollars, given that it could easily be a meal for two. But there was no heat, no tongue-immolating, sinus clearing, heart palpitating flavor—none of the things that make me really enjoy Mexican food. In fact, the mildest dishes at Sai Ram obliterate anything I sampled at El Azteca.
And this is all why El Azteca (and Zacateca’s, for that matter) is so disappointing. It’s not Chi-Chi’s, but it could be so much better. The elements seem to be present for really good Mexican food, but it is just not happening. Perhaps the management is under the impression that the Midwestern palate cannot handle the full firepower of authentic Mexican. That may be so, but there are certainly many among us who would like to at least have the option of trying.