Azteca is a happy place to eat. The staff is happy you are there, generous with service and enthusiastic in recommending what to eat. "If you don't like it, I'll pay for it," said the waiter, who talked me into having the chicken mole. The mole was satisfactory, and the waiter didn't lose $7.55 that night. He would have been financially safe also in recommending the carnitas, for they are terrific--succulent with a bit of crunchiness, and as good as any I have had in Los Angeles.
There would have been no risk, only reward, if he had suggested the flan for dessert. It is a beautiful presentation, a silky-smooth custard set aflame with light rum and accompanied by a big puff of whipped cream. Rich, yes--and a delight to eat.
A happy choice among the appetizers would be the panchos, a decorative platter of tortilla chips topped with meat, cheese, guacamole, tomato and green onion. Don't dawdle in eating this dish, though. The red chile sauce that floods the plate quickly softens the chips.
Those who have acquired the taste for fajitas should be happy with Azteca's presentation. There is a choice of chicken or beef, or it is possible to have both in the same skillet. The meat is combined with green pepper, tomato and onion in what seems to be a popular style of fajitas in California.
Often, dishes a little off the main track are not the best to order in Mexican restaurants. Shrimp, for example, can be tough and dry when kitchen skills are concentrated elsewhere. However, the shrimp in Azteca's camarones rancheros were fresh and tender. One could not fault the cooking, only the portion control. Although they were large, three shrimp seemed, well, chintzy for $8.50. They were served on a bed of lightly cooked green peppers, tomatoes and onion and accompanied, as are all the dinners, by rice, beans, albondigas soup or green salad. (If having the salad, try the house dressing. It's a pleasing honey-mustard mixture.)
The arroz con leche (rice pudding) also had a slight flaw. The pudding itself was creamy and nicely flavored with cinnamon. The problem was the raisins--rather than being cooked with the rice, they were scattered, unsoftened, over the top. Their wrinkly, dry texture simply didn't blend with the dessert.
Aside from these minor faults, the food at Azteca is very good--not greasy, starchy or overpowering as at some Mexican restaurants. The chiles rellenos are made with fresh chiles. The enchilada sauce is not one of those heavy, thickened mixtures. The Margaritas are big, icy and flavored with banana, strawberry or other fruits, if you like that type. And the menu offers considerable variety.
Some familiar dishes are listed under other names. Sour-cream-topped enchiladas suizas are called "enchiladas Suis-Mex," and the popular crab enchiladas with tomatillo sauce are known in this restaurant as the "gringo's special."
In another language switch, BYOB loses its familiar meaning. You do not bring your own bottle to Azteca. Instead, you build your own burrito, working from a plate that contains cilantro, fresh salsa, sliced onion, shredded cheese, tomato wedges and avocado slices. A bowl of shredded beef (or other meat) is in the center.
Azteca is floridly decorated with such pseudo-Mexican motifs as red-tiled eaves to give the impression of dining in a hacienda rather than on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. It is very clean and, apparently, very safe, judging from the frequency with which police eat there. A nice touch is live performance of traditional Mexican music every night.
Azteca Mexican Restaurant, 424 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. Open from 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Live music 7 p.m. to midnight. Call (213) 396-6576 for reservations. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Parking lot next door, or park on street.