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Azada Mexican Grill takes on tough location with terrific tastes




Believe me, I'm the first guy to grumble about yet another Mexican place opening in town — as if our scene somehow lacked burrito options. But if they all proved to be as good as Azada Mexican Grill, I'd gladly shut up and shovel down my pork and beans.

One can only hope that Azada will find success in the same space where the Flow of Mexico and other Mexican outfits, including Esmeralda's and 3 Hermanos, have tried and failed.

This go-round, it's not three brothers, but two brothers (Chilo and Joel Hernandez), plus their sister and her husband (Juanita and Raul Huitron) taking turns at the hot line. When you finally reach the back corner of the rather long and plain, though clean, dining room, they'll dish you meat samples in plastic ramekins — an exercise that's less about weeding out anything you won't enjoy and more about painstakingly deciding on a favorite.

Everything, down to the corn and flour tortillas and salsas, is made in-house, as they are quick to tell guests while beaming with pride. Meats are broken down and roasted on site, seasoned beautifully, informed by family recipes from Jiménez in Mexico's Chihuahua region. "Classic cooking techniques," in the words of Raul, the patriarch who brings more than 30 years' restaurant experience to this group's first indie venture.

Take the most stunning offering of all, the bright red Rojo: pork heavily lacquered in a house-roasted red Anaheim chili paste with all the deep-earth burn you could desire. Equal in grandeur to La Rosa's carne adovada, which blew me away earlier this year, Azada's Rojo is a dish traditionally served at celebrations, like the Huitrons' own wedding.

Get it with papitas (small-cubed potatoes with melted cheese), guacamole, sour cream and salsa as a heaping plate ($9.50), or in a burrito, tacos or over rice as a bowl ($6.50 each). With customization all along the way — cilantro-lime or Mexican rice, plus protein and mild, medium and hot salsa choices — the whole counter-service-style flow is very Chipotle-esque. But the rich flavors and home-style touches, such as those fantastic, aromatic tortillas, set Azada apart as a local.

Second to the Rojo's splendor is the Verde, shredded beef drowned in a loose, hot green chile sauce. Then come barbacoa and carnitas, simpler and lighter-spiced beef and pork picks that allow the meats to speak louder. There are also drier chicken and carne asada options; the former benefits from chili and achiote (annatto spice) seasonings, and the latter from subtle garlic and onion.

They start serving burritos for breakfast; prior to 10:30, you can drop by for chorizo-egg renditions. We haven't yet tried those, but can say that for lunch or dinner, the off-menu chile relleno burrito ($7.50) is a hefty crowd pleaser with the staples, plus daydream-inducing fried poblano-cheese goo. Follow up with four puffy sopapillas ($2.50), delivering all the comfort of delicious-smelling fried dough, thankfully without a confectioners' sugar blanket. Instead, they're plated simply with a side of honey for dipping, though a cinnamon dusting wouldn't hurt for my tastes.

That's pretty much the only dish that left me wanting for anything, and just a minor accent at that. Which says a lot for a little family outfit entering a sea of sameness on the scene and trying to prove their prowess in a tough location. I say let the Rojo do the talking.

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