Photos by Mike Busche
Introducing Eat & Drink Duluth (E&DD)
by Andrea Busche, the new Destination Duluth Foodie Editor. Andrea and her photographer husband, Mike, will be reviewing locally-owned restaurants and breweries.
Azteca’s Mexican Grill Is A Fiesta for All Five Senses
Every now and then, I experience a craving that simply must be satisfied – an intense longing that can only be extinguished with gooey melted cheese, crispy tortilla chips, creamy guacamole, and the sweet-tart delight of a potent Margarita
Yes, my friends, we are talking about the pleasures of Mexican cuisine. And boy, do we have a treat for you today.
We recently dined at Azteca’s Mexican Grill, located at 2224 Mountain Shadow Drive. While the restaurant is housed within a strip mall, you’d be remiss to judge a book by its cover.
Inside, you’ll find an absolute fiesta of Mexican delights. The restaurant, owned and operated by Jenny Campante since 2016, is bright and cheerful, and the food is superb. Everything from the food and service to the music and atmosphere invokes feelings of a party – where you’re the guest of honor.
Please join us as we Eat & Drink Duluth – Azteca’s style!
We visited Azteca’s at 4 pm on a Tuesday (Taco Tuesday)! We intentionally arrived before the dinner rush to munch on some chips, leisurely sip a Marg, and get the lay of the land.
We were greeted promptly and led to a booth in the restaurant; Azteca’s has a spacious restaurant and a smaller bar area.
Upon arrival, we were the only patrons in the restaurant. But that changed by about 5 pm, when the restaurant began to fill up with college students, families, and a couple “ladies’ night out” tables.
Our senses were instantly tickled with the festive sounds of Mariachi music, bright, cheerful décor, and delicious aromas coming from the kitchen. The combination of booths and tables are decked out in all colors of the rainbow, providing a joyful atmosphere.
We were soon greeted warmly by our server, Juan, who brought us a warm basket of thick tortilla chips, a side of refried beans, and two dishes of fresh salsa.
We kicked off our dining adventure by ordering our beverages. I told Juan I was craving a Margarita, and he recommended the Cadillac Margarita, made with Patron tequila and Grand Marnier. Yes, please.
Mike opted for a cold, classic domestic: A Michelob Ultra. This would later prove a wise decision, to help extinguish the heat from his spicy meal.
The Marg – which packed a punch - was everything I had dreamed of. It was the perfect combo of sweet and tart, with a generous layer of coarse salt lining the rim. I didn’t really notice anything different with the addition of the Grand Marnier, which is a blend of fine cognac and bitter orange-flavored liqueur.
One of our neighboring tables ordered a jalapeno margarita. The drink was beautifully presented, with thin slices of fresh jalapenos floating in the glass.
While we perused the menu, we dug into the chips, using them as vehicles to scoop up salsa and beans. The chips, which are on the thicker side, had a very satisfying crunch. The beans had a creamy, smoky flavor. And the salsa was more of a puree, featuring small chunks of white onions and cilantro.
The menu at Azteca’s is enormous. It features six pages of apps, enchiladas, combos, burritos, egg dishes, soups, salads, veggie dishes, pollo (chicken), mariscos (seafood), carnes (meat), American meals, a la carte items, postres (desserts), and even a “Little Amigos” menu. There are also daily specials. And a wide variety of beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are available.
Mike chose the fajita trio. From the menu:
Steak, chicken, and shrimp over sauteed onions and bell peppers. Served with rice, beans, and tortillas, and garnished with guacamole, sour cream, cheese, Pico de Gallo, and lettuce.
The enormous plate of fajitas arrived still sizzling and steaming. There was no shortage of protein between the plentiful strips of well-seasoned chicken and steak, and large portion of plump shrimp.
Underneath the meat was a tender, caramelized blend of white onions and green peppers. Thick slices of tender carrots rested atop the meat, which was an interesting ingredient I had never seen before. Patrons can choose either flour or corn tortillas; Mike chose a ½ and ½ combo.
While extremely flavorful, his fajitas were spicy. If you aren’t into spice, please mention it to your server, to request a milder preparation.
The fajitas also came with a giant serving of sides: lettuce, sour cream, pico, creamy and flavorful guac, fluffy Spanish rice and a side of refried beans. An entire meal in and of itself.
I ordered the Enchijitas. From the menu:
Two quesadilla-style enchiladas stuffed with grilled chicken and steak. Topped with guajillo sauce and creamy crema sauce. Served with Pico de Gallo, lettuce, green onions, and whole pinto beans with rice.
This dish was scrumptious. One enchilada contained strips of steak, and was topped with a mild red sauce (guajillo). The other contained chicken and was topped with the crema sauce. Both enchiladas were topped with a generous portion of gooey, melted cheese.
The “whole pinto beans” were served in a liquid, and topped with cheese. They were tasty, and I had never seen this type of presentation before.
My dish was on the mild side, which I was grateful for. And I was glad to be able to share Mike’s plate of “extras,” mixing and matching each bite of enchilada with different permutations of pico, guac, sour cream, lettuce, rice, and beans. Heaven.
The portions at Azteca’s are absolutely huge, and we departed with tons of leftovers.
Our server, Juan Ramirez, was charming and more than willing to chat. Originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, Juan has been working at Azteca’s for a year.
Juan and some of the other servers we overheard interspersed their conversations with a few basic Spanish words that most patrons would understand (si; gracias). The experience felt like a welcoming celebration of Mexican culture, cuisine, and community.
Juan enthusiastically answered all our questions about the food and beverages with a positive, friendly attitude. He even agreed to a photo!
Azteca’s Mexican Grill offers authentic Mexican food at a great price. The portions are enormous and the service is wonderful. The vibe is festive and cheerful. And the Margaritas are a dream come true.
Perhaps we should use the clever quip Mike provided to summarize our experience:
“It was Juan-der-ful!”
About Andrea Busche, E&DD Editor
Andrea Busche is a Duluth and regional freelance writer credited with over 1,000 bylines in local print and digital publications. Her food column, Local Pairings, was featured in Duluth.com magazine and later published in the Duluth News Tribune from 2016-2018.