El Cerro Azul 

A Mexican dive in Powhatan makes a name for itself.

click to enlarge food04_lede_azul_148.jpg

If you dig Mexican food enough to have a favorite Mexican restaurant, then I bet I can guess where it is: It's the one closest to your home or to the movie theater you frequent. Am I right?

Well, that's because we count on Mexican for two things: consistency and convenience. What other cuisine offers such a sizable meal arriving at your table in less than five minutes, with free chips and salsa while you wait? If you live in Powhatan, I'd guess that your local favorite is El Cerro Azul. If you don't live in Powhatan, 9-to-1 you'll never eat there.

To a non-Powahatanian, El Cerro Azul — aka The Blue Hill — seems as remote as its namesake, a mountain in southwestern Oaxaca. The restaurant sits on a lonely stretch of Route 60 West, where I trekked in the company of an amigo who has lived south of the border for much of the last decade.

To him, El Cerro Azul serves a few good, solid Mexican standards, including a particularly authentic rendition of carnitas — those succulent, long-roasted chunks of pork shoulder. Other standout dishes include a good enchiladas verde, a magnificently spicy salsa featuring charred pequeno peppers that is served by special request, and flavorful Spanish rice. That's El Cerro Azul at its best.

At its worst, "The Blue Hill" is a starkly lit, characterless, dropped-ceiling, acoustic-tiled space that could be nearly anything — insurance office, franchise strip-mall gym, etc. — except for the faux-wood-grained tables and vinyl booths and the servers (who outnumber the customers, even when the place is full) lingering around the door. One of the things I actually like about Mexican joints is that most seem to be just that — joints — quirky, with green, red and white everywhere, softly lit and full of vitality in the form of a peppy brass-section mariachi and tinted black velvet. The decor at El Cerro Azul isn't tacky; it just isn't anything.

But it is the weakness of El Cerro Azul's menu, a flaw typical of too many American Mexican restaurants, that most disappointed my guest and me. Good food starts with good ingredients, and I can't remember the last time I ate at an El-anything in Richmond where the salsa wasn't made from canned tomatoes. In fact, much if not most of what El Cerro Azul was serving originated from cans and boxes marked with an American food service corporation's logo in red, white and blue.

The biggest difference between American Mexican and true Mexican is that south-of-the-border cooks tend toward fresh ingredients for their salsas and rojas. Another major difference? Tortilla chips. Perhaps you've tasted the real deal before — the glossy, thick kind that bubble and form two layers when fried and end up on the crunchy, rather than crispy side. Where do I have to go to find those — Guadalajara?

El Cerro Azul offers the full range of Mexican beers and special daiquiris and margaritas you would expect from a Mexican place, although when you walk in, you may be surprised that it serves alcohol at all — there is no bar. All food and drink orders emanate from a long server station that leads into the kitchen.

That station sends out a good selection of desserts, from the standard fried ice cream and sopapillas to xangas, a flour tortilla stuffed with caramel-chocolate cheesecake and fried.

As the evening's dinner service wound down, the mama of the family guarded the front door with a serious scowl that kept the servers moving — cleaning the tables around us, vacuuming the floor and rolling silverware — an odd sight on a Friday night with the dining room still half full. But she needn't worry. Although I may not be back in the vicinity anytime soon, there are certainly locals who will be. El Cerro Azul is probably many folks' favorite. Over in my neck of the woods, I'm happy to give patronage to El Nopal, which serves essentially the same fare.

Why do I settle? Two words: convenience and consistency. S

El Cerro Azul ($)
2650 James Anderson Highway (Route 60)
Hours: Monday-Tuesday: 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m.;
Wednesday-Friday: 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m.;
Saturday-Sunday: noon-10 p.m.

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