I am still searching for great Mexican food in the Boston area. There are plenty of contenders but I have yet to find a restaurant worthy of repeat visits. A recent excursion took me to Cafe Azteca in Lawrence, MA.
There is no doubt, this restaurant is popular. It was full and we were greeted warmly and seated promptly.
The menu is what really drew me to this spot. It is without a doubt the most comprehensive Mexican restaurant menu I have seen in New England. Much closer to what one might expect in the southern border areas of the US.
The obligatory and complimentary chips and salsa arrived shortly after we were seated. This was another auspicious sign as too many Mexican restaurants in New England charge for this. This is unheard of in my home state of Texas. So 'salut' to Cafe Azteca for getting off to a good start.
The next phase of our experience showed that the worm was turning. It was a good news-bad news issue. The good? The margaritas were reasonably priced. The most expensive on the menu was made with Herradura and Cointreau and was only $8.50. This could easily have gone for $10 to $15 in other places. However, while the menu says their margs are made with 'lime juice' I have a sinking suspicion that it is not fresh squeezed. The drink did not have the acidic bite one gets from real lime juice. It had a much mellower and sweet taste which, I shutter to think, came from Rose's Lime Juice. I'm a margarita purist and using anything but fresh lime juice is an abomination.
So reasonably priced but with second rate ingredients. Hmmm, things are worsening.
The salsa was a bit of a disappointment too. I appreciate that restaurants that serve natively spicy foods have to respond to the local palate, but Cafe Azteca could have at least tried to add some spice to their salsa. It had some traditional flavors but it was far too tomato-ey and sweet. Where's the heat? And do you think you could spend a bit more prep time in the kitchen and chop up the tomatoes so I can at least get them to sit on my chip?
I ordered enchiladas for my entrée. I wish I could tell you all about them but the waitress screwed up my order and I got tamales instead. This is frustrating but I wasn't really upset because I had struggled with my decision between the tamales and the enchiladas anyway. We were in a hurry and could not wait for a fix to this situation.
According to the description on the menu I got "Tamales de Pollo - Stuffed with chicken in a non-spicy, green tomatillo salsa."
Let's pause for a moment and review the definition of 'tamale.' Yes, it is a city in the northern part of Ghana, but the edible version is defined as "corn and cornmeal dough stuffed with a meat mixture then wrapped in corn husks and steamed." The key word in this definition and in Cafe Azteca's own description is 'STUFFED!' BUT THEIRS ISN'T STUFFED! I was stunned and very disappointed.
Cafe Azteca has chosen to take a shortcut. Is this a trend? First the questionable lime juice, and now we learn they don't even stuff their tamales. How indicative is this of their other culinary efforts?
What arrived on my plate was two 'tamale-sized' tubes of steamed masa (i.e., the corn meal used in tamales) with a 'sauce' of chicken dumped on top. It tasted okay but it is just NOT a tamale. In a true tamale the stuffing and the masa combine to deliver tastes that can not be achieved by merely steaming corn meal and piling on it's 'stuffing.'
I had such high hopes for Cafe Azteca and I'm afraid it will be just another 'Mexican' restaurant that I can check off my growing list of those that disappoint.
For more information:
180 Common St
Lawrence, MA 01840