Buen Gusto 

There's hope for Mexican food in Richmond.

click to enlarge Mariachi de mi Tierra entertains patrons at Plaza Azteca, where the food and dAccor are a notch above the usual here.
  • Mariachi de mi Tierra entertains patrons at Plaza Azteca, where the food and dAccor are a notch above the usual here.

One of my ongoing dreams for the Richmond restaurant landscape has been the arrival of high-end Mexican. Spending time in Rick Bayless' Chicago institutions and a recent trip to Austin, Texas, have only increased my cravings. I was optimistic to see Plaza Azteca, a Virginia-based chain, open in the Max & Erma's space in Reynold's Crossing. I wonder: Can this be the one?

Arriving on a recent Thursday night, we find a lively atmosphere. The formulaic but well-executed design melds stucco walls, dark wood beams, iron accents, hanging glass lamps, a lighted fireplace in the bar, and an enormous Mayan temple in the back. Booths and tables are crafted from heavy wood, and chairs are adorned with the restaurant's name.

After we're seated and place our order, a five-piece mariachi band appears to serenade our table. The children go wild and dance around the booth. With the atmosphere trumping any Mexican restaurants in town, we're hopeful that our meals will be equally good. The menu is extensive, especially in the seafood arena (seafood chimichangas, tilapia and mahi-mahi) as well as a half-dozen steak and chicken dishes, finished with interesting toppings that include mushrooms, chorizo, shrimp and crabmeat.

For starters, a house specialty is the tableside guacamole. For $6 and an optional tip, we watch a chef blend a simple combination of avocados, chopped onions, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and cilantro in a heavy stone bowl. The result is refreshingly good. Stuffed jalapenos ($4.75) are an indulgent treat, fried crispy and oozing with cheese. The boys are happy with their chocolate milk and cheese quesadillas for $5.99, from a kids' menu that also includes tacos, burritos, cheeseburgers and hot dogs.

Tacos al pastor ($9.50) are traditionally spit-grilled and tender, but mine are on the dry side without a hint of the promised pineapple. The smoky tomatillo sauce saves the dish, as does the presentation with chopped onions and cilantro. The side of beans and rice is average, and I wonder why black beans are never offered as an alternative to the slightly gummy refried variety. My wife orders the burrito ruleta ($7.50) from a choice of 10 varieties, and is pleased with the tender grilled chicken and caramelized onions topped with melted cheese. Tamales ($1.99 or three for $5.75) are also done well, with a generous stuffing of chicken encased in a tender wrapping of lime-accented masa.

Return trips for lunch find the restaurant equally bustling. I sample the enchiladas poblanas ($7.94), one of my Mexican food litmus tests. Corn tortillas are stuffed with shredded chicken and topped with a rich mole sauce, made spicy by poblano peppers but just a touch too sweet. When I revisit El Chapala, one of my favorite local Mexican restaurants, to compare notes, my memory serves me well. El Chapala's are better, with chunks of chicken and a much more subtle mole, a rich layering of delicate flavors equal parts spicy and sweet. When done well, it's the umami of Mexican food.

On another visit to Azteca, I opt for one of its special platters, lobster enchiladas ($9.55), and am not disappointed. Three corn tortillas are stuffed with fresh-tasting lobster enhanced by cilantro, green onions and a spicy queso a la diabla. Topped with fresh corn relish, the dish shines. The chicken chimichanga ($6.74) is stuffed full of chicken chunks, more substantial than the common shredded variety. The chile rellenos ($2.99 or three for $7.50) are disappointingly small, and the peppers are drowned with an overabundance of cheese.

For the most part, Plaza Azteca avoids the all too common formula of tortilla plus meat plus sauce plus too much melted cheese. With its more nuanced and wide-ranging dishes, it has raised the ante for Mexican in Richmond. While it may not be as authentic and interesting as some out-of-town destinations — and some of the dishes are a bit uneven — the restaurant's certainly brought a livelier atmosphere and fresher food to a genre that suffers from mediocrity in Richmond. S

Plaza Azteca
6623 W. Broad St.
888-9984
plazaazateca.com
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fridays 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Saturdays noon-10:30 p.m.
Sundays noon-9:30 p.m.

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