East Austin restaurant El Azteca likely closing after 53 years

El Azteca opened in 1963 in East Austin. (Peter Yang AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

El Azteca opened in 1963 in East Austin. (Peter Yang AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

It appears “Old Austin” will suffer another major blow later this year. Tex-Mex restaurant El Azteca, which was founded by Jorge D. Guerra and Ninfa Guerra in 1963, will close its doors, pending a sale of the property, according to Lonnie Limon, a longtime family friend of the Guerra family. The iconic restaurant is one of the longest running Mexican restaurants in Austin and is now owned and operated by Mr. Guerra’s son, Daniel Guerra, and daughter-in-law Flora Guerra.

The restaurant, known for for its colorful calendars, serves Tex-Mex staples like enchiladas and tacos, and earned a name for itself based on the strength of dishes like juicy cabrito, rich chicken mole and barbacoa de cabeza.

“Barrio restaurants owned by people who had a strong sense of community are (becoming) a thing of the past and that’s a shame. But between the proliferation of chains, the gentrification, increased property values and the aging of long time barrio residents, those kinds of places are difficult to sustain,” former Statesman editorial page editor Arnold Garcia wrote in an email.

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Alejandro Escovedo and Anthony Bourdain eat at El Azteca. (Credit: Screen grab from YouTube clip of the Food Network’s “No Reservations.”

The restaurant has been a cultural touchstone and meeting place for the East Austin community over the decades, and Austin music great Alejandro Escovedo even told Anthony Bourdain that it was the first place he ever dined in Austin. (See that clip from “No Reservations” at the 27-minute mark here.)

The Guerra family has not made public the name of the potential buyer or any expected closing date of the restaurant.

As you drive down East Seventh Street, you can’t help noticing the tantalizing aroma of toasted corn from the nearby tortilla factories that crank out zillions of tortilla chips, corn tortillas and taco shells enjoyed by Central Texans. It serves as a palate-teaser as you head for one of the numerous family cafes that dot the area.

This is the heart of Austin’s barrio, and home of some of the best Mexican food in town. One longtime favorite is El Azteca, owned by the Guerra family. The atmosphere is friendly, the surroundings familiar – no trendy Southwest furnishings here – and the food hearty, filling and delicious.

The menu is extensive, and it offers all the popular Mexican favorites: enchiladas, tamales, tacos, flautas, chalupas, etc. But it also offers some dishes that are typically found in family restaurants throughout South Texas and northern Mexico. Cabrito (spit-roasted kid goat) is just one of the specialties that marks El Azteca as a genuine Mexican restaurant, not a pale imitation. There is also barbacoa de cabeza (barbecued beef head) that is served with rice, beans, and corn or flour tortillas.

A good test of any Mexican restaurant is to try the mole dishes. Mole poblano is a rich concoction of chocolate, spices and chiles, and if not made properly, it can become soupy, or the oil can separate and make the dish greasy. El Azteca’s chicken mole enchiladas are very good, the sauce thick and rich with a distinct bitter chocolate flavor. The enchiladas are made as they are in Mexico, the corn tortillas simply heated quickly in a little oil, then filled and rolled and topped with sauce. Baking enchiladas, as some restaurants do, can make them rubbery or hard.

The accompanying refried beans and rice are also good tests of the kitchen’s skill. Again, El Azteca gets good marks. The beans are not bland or blended into a mush, but they are thick and flavorful; the rice is fluffy and dry as true Mexican rice, called sopa seca (“dry soup”) should be.

We also tried steak a la Mexicana, a braised beef dish made from chunks of steak cooked with peppers and tomatoes. The dish had just the right touch of heat and was especially good in corn tortillas.

Other favorites on the El Azteca menu include carne guisada, a popular South Texas dish of slow-cooked beef in thick, spicy gravy. And El Azteca also serves menudo and caldo, the first a thick soup made from tripe and peppers, the second a rich chicken soup.

For heartier eaters there are several charcoal-roasted dishes in addition to cabrito: chuleton (beef rib steak), pork chops and fajitas.

While we reviewed the menu, we munched on crisp, light tortilla chips and the house salsa, a particularly well-made sauce, thick and with just enough heat to be addictive. Some of the dishes are accompanied by a small single scoop of guacamole salad, while a side order of guacamole is made up of two scoops for $3, a good bargain given the price of avocados these days.

Most of the traditional menu items range from $4 to $6, with specialties like chile relleno priced around $7. Grilled and barbecued dishes range from about $7 to $9. Rice and refried beans accompany most dishes, and frijoles a la charra also are available. In addition, egg dishes are served before and after the lunch-hour rush.

One nice finishing touch is the presentation of a small bowl of pineapple ice cream, instead of the usual praline. Like a sorbet served at elegant restaurants, the ice cream freshens the palate after all that spicy food.Three generations of the Guerra family work in the restaurant. The service is friendly and efficient, and family members often sit at a corner table and talk to regular customers as they come and go.

El Azteca is decorated with the sort of bric-a-brac that is found in Mexican family cafes throughout Texas – portraits of President Benito Juarez and his contemporary President Abraham Lincoln hang near the door, while on a back wall is a painting of John and Robert Kennedy. A glass case on one wall contains a collection of Mexican peso notes, many of them long out of circulation now that the peso is counted in thousands against the dollar.


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