A Dozen Dives: El Azteca

12 places we're drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 3: El Azteca
2600 E. Seventh St. 477-4701, www.elaztecaustin.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.11.12
There’s a black velvet painting of President Kennedy between two taxidermied goat heads in one room. A political statement? Not likely, since JFK died the same year El Azteca was born. He shares wall space with Abraham Lincoln, Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo. Not to mention feather-crested (and sometimes bare-breasted) Aztec beauties in poses both heroic, erotic and domesticated. It’s a place so inscrutably MexiTexican that it could be a set piece in a Robert Rodriguez movie, with green walls and red vinyl booths in the saturated neons favored by Austin’s El Rey del Cine. Show business has landed at El Azteca over the years. Menus in a display case are signed by celebrities as scattered as Edward James Olmos, Colt McCoy and my favorites, Woody Allen and Ricardo Montalban.
Like so many other old-guard businesses, El Azteca survived the city’s interminable beautification project along East Seventh Street, for which they got a few streetlamps and a pavestone turn lane in exchange for months of making a trip for lunch here harder than a driver’s license test. As one couple left, the wife said, “We live in Oregon now. This is always the first place we come when we get back.”
What you’re eating: A sign by the road goes out of its way to proclaim El Azteca “The Home of Cabrito.” It’s a house framed with bones that look like they’ve bleached through a summer’s worth of hard desert sun, so thoroughly dessicated and separated from the meat that they clink on the plate like Chiclets. This is Cabrito al Horno (roasted goat), the most expensive thing on the menu at $13.99. The movie-star plate. The bones threw me off, that and the fact that the meat around them looked like it spent that same summer roasting in the sun, a wizened antique brown cut with shiny rivets of yellowed fat. That’s just the thin veneer of the sear, because the meat beneath is as short-fibered and tender as good brisket, with just a wink of goat’s earthy other-meat twang.
The plate’s finished with pinto beans stewed with bacon and onion, Spanish rice that tastes like salt and old cooking oil, plus a chunky guacamole salad. Chips and smoky salsa verde are free. So is a baby dish of sherbet (sher-bert) that you’ll eat no matter how much of a cabrito-stuffed gringo you are.
What you’re drinking: Because it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, you’re having a frozen margarita ($6), a sweet lime Squishee with enough oaky tequila dryness to put your mind right for 5 o’clock anywhere.
Other options: No Tex-Mex standard is overlooked, and most of it’s $8 or $9 a plate or less. Enchiladas, burritos, tacos, nachos, flautas, rellenos. Plus specialty dishes like diced Steak a la Mexicana ($9.79), carne guisada and barbacoa ($7.79 each). Tell them Mr. Roarke sent you. Or Khan, depending on your TV generation.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)