Santa Cruz Good Times

Apr 23rd
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What Freedom Brings

dining elaztecatacosFreedom's El Azteca has plenty of surprises on its menu, including healthy ones

We headed into the hills above Freedom Boulevard in need of some amazingly delicious honey from Pacific Crest Apiaries. Hungry as well, we noticed a stack of business cards for El Azteca, located just down the road, and asked co-owner Dana Mumm about it. She gushed about the family and the food, and suggested we try grilled shrimp soft tacos, which aren't on the menu.

El Azteca is a small restaurant on the corner of Freedom Boulevard and Corralitos Road, with roughly stuccoed walls randomly decorated with Meso-American art and beer company mirrors. Of special note are numerous images of the Aztec Calendar Stone and of an Aztec warrior holding his princess; a reference to the Aztec legend of the volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl in Mexico. Smooth faux marble tops are affixed to the tables and the latticed ceiling in the back room has numerous skylights.

Our server, the charming daughter of owners Javier and Jessie Robles, told us they had owned the restaurant for five years.

The thick tortilla chips were fried in-house and served with smooth cooked salsa. Twenty-one beers are offered, including three non-alcoholic brands. Margaritas ($5.50), served in stylish glasses with arching cobalt stems, were as smooth as slushies.

The à la carte menu is quite reasonably priced, with bean burritos ($2.50), meat burritos ($3.50), super burritos ($5.25), enchiladas ($2.95), dining elaztecatamales ($2.95), and two taquitos ($3.95). Small plates with rice and beans ($4.99 to $7.25) include mini tostadas and a bowl of chile verde. Fifteen dinners ($8.55 to $13.95), which include vegetarian refried beans, rice, and a garnish salad, range from tacos, enchiladas, and tamales to skirt steak picante and sizzling fajitas.

The side order of chile relleno ($2.95) was delightfully different. It looked more like an enchilada, with a cheese-stuffed, roasted red chili rolled in a crepe-thin omelet. Topped with cheese, tomatoes, and onion, it arrived bubbling in its mild, tan-colored chili sauce.

The Chimichanga ($9.25) too, was not deep fried, but grilled and served sauced, similar to the relleno. It contained beans, tomato, and lettuce, with choice of meat. The chile verde was nicely flavored, but made from beef and less tender than many pork-based recipes.

The two shrimp tacos ($6) were indeed a delicious example of lean cuisine and bore the colors of Mexico's flag. Each was served on a pair of small, griddled corn tortillas and topped simply with fresh cilantro, white onion and tomato.

The house's special chalupas ($10.25), which are described as egg rolls on the menu, were made from flour tortillas stuffed with New York steak, bell peppers, and caramelized red onions. We dipped the deep-fried, flaky slices into sour cream and freshly mashed avocado.
El Azteca, 2904 Freedom Blvd., Watsonville, 728-5250. Full bar. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Closed Mondays. Specials are announced on the restaurant's Facebook page.
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