Whenever a new Mexican restaurant opens in Richmond, I am filled with anticipation: Can someone take the typical Mexican restaurant experience here to the next level? Lauriol Plaza in Washington is a favorite, and on a national scale few do it better than Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill or Topolobampo in Chicago. Part of the challenge is the menu design, the other is execution.
My first encounter with the menu at Shockoe Bottom's Aztek Grill keeps me hopeful. In addition to standard Mexican fare, it includes other Latin American dishes, and unlike most in this genre it eschews the numbered combinations. The lineup is heavier on seafood and includes seviche, fried fish, shrimp, mussels and calamari.
There's a certain all-too-familiar routine in how most Mexican restaurants operate. A basket of tortilla chips and salsa arrives almost immediately to keep us company. On my first visit, red and blue chips join standard yellow, and come warm and slightly thick with a nice crunch. On a second visit the yellow chips are alone but again better than average. The house salsa is thin. Where's the fresh cilantro? The chunks of tomato? The onion? There's some redemption with the salsa verde but this is a disappointing start.
Guacamole comes the usual way but also with chipotle, wasabi, cumin, melted queso, blue crab or garlic and cheese. While the standard guac seems more filler than avocado, the chipotle version is a pleasant surprise. Queso dips are dressed with spinach, beans, bacon or chorizo. The chorizo queso is decadent, but the pool of grease reminds me how much fat I'm ingesting. On the healthier end of the scale are five soups and half a dozen salads, none of which arrives in a fried tortilla shell like at many Mexican places.
Some starters also stray from the usual fare, including fried yucca, empanadas and pupusas. The yucca is easily improved with a bit of salt, and the chipotle dipping sauce is a spicy complement. It's an interesting alternative to potato fries with a heartier consistency and health benefits. The restaurant is out of the empanadas as well as the el Salvadoran pupusa, and mole appears nowhere on the menu, but some items are being changed as the business tweaks its offerings.
One dish that should remain is the chile relleno, one of the best I've had in Richmond. Two smoky poblano peppers are stuffed with ground beef and topped with cheese that's not overwhelming. The tamale is better than average, stuffed with pork and drizzled with a subtly sweet and spicy tomato sauce.
One of the house specialties is a chicken burrito stuffed with chipotle peppers, black beans, queso and sour cream. The burrito arrives as hero of the plate and nicely garnished, not relegated to one side and overshadowed by dry rice and refried beans like you'll find at some places. The carnitas are also exceptional. After a quick sear, pork shoulders are braised for several hours with slices of orange and caramelized to crisp up the chopped pork. Served with warm tortillas, fresh jalapeno and pico de gallo, these are the real deal.
Service is a bit uneven at times, and one server has a major language barrier and isn't fully up to speed on the menu. Waits are a bit longer than the frenetic pace of most competitors. But I'd much rather wait a few minutes for my meal than have it delivered before I've had the first taste of my $2 Dos Equis special.
Aztek Grill is a welcome addition to the Latino food landscape in Richmond, and a bright spot in an area that still needs attention and stability. With some polishing and consistency, it can become a worthwhile destination.
1726 E. Main St.
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.