by Mel Small
"OK" was the response of my three dinner partners to their meal at Grand Azteca, the Mexican restaurant on Fourteen Mile Road opposite Oakland Mall. That doesn't sound like much of a recommendation, but before you stop reading, ask yourself how many local burrito bars merit more than an OK? In any event, the owners, brothers Silviano, Ramon and Gulmaro Arellano must be doing something right because in the four short years since they opened their first location, they've cloned Grand Aztecas in Warren, Fraser and Waterford.
They began by redecorating a former Denny's in Madison Heights with riotous pastels and filled the walls, nooks and crannies of their two sprawling dining spaces with virtually every imaginable piece of Mexican kitsch. And although the Arellanos began their restaurant career south of the border, they decided to stick to familiar Tex-Mex fare in this country. Their menu is dominated by tacos, burritos, enchiladas, nachos and fajitas with the spice and fire level toned down for tender Midwestern palates.
Indeed, there is virtually no heat in the salsa and ranch dressing (!) accompanying the generous basket of warm tortilla chips that welcomes diners. This is balanced somewhat by the slightly more sprightly white pimento-like cheese that adorns the basic nacho ($4). That nacho virtually disappears beneath chicken, mounds of shredded iceberg, tomatoes, sour cream and a smooth guacamole in its "supremo" ($6.75) variation.
Similarly oversized, the house salad ($3) overflows with raw carrot chunks, cucumbers, onions and tomatoes. The "special house dressing" promised on the menu turns out to be a packet of Paul Newman's politically correct ranch. Other salads are built around tacos, fajitas and quesadillas.
Chef Juan Ramos offers 31 combination dinners ($6.50 to $7.50) that mix and match endless varieties of tacos, enchiladas, burritos and chalupas with chile relleno, beans, rice, sour cream and the more obscure tostaguac, a crispy corn tortilla with beans, beef, lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole. I was able to identify that item thanks to the glossary on the back of the long menu.
Among the more elaborate "Especialidades del Cocinero" or chef's suggestions is the shrimp fajita, the most expensive dish in the house at $13.25, a large portion of sizzling shrimp, peppers, tomatoes and nicely charred onions, served with piping hot flour tortillas, refried beans laced with cheese, and guacamole. Alas, though well-prepared, these especially tiny crustaceans live up to their name.
On the other hand, the pollo Azteca ($8.25), grilled and marinated chicken covered with a zingy barbecue sauce, was more than ample. The cheese-topped beans that come with are unusual in that they all but disappear into a dense liquid form.
Other chef suggestions include yolanda or chicken enchiladas, scrambled eggs with Mexican chorizo or sausage, grilled rib-eye steak ranchero and the apparently deranged pollo loco. Especially enticing are the fajitas Vallarta, featuring a mixture of chorizo, chicken and beef along with the expected onions, tomatoes and peppers.
Nine items appear in the menu's vegetarian section with spinach, potatoes and mushrooms replacing the meat and chicken in burritos, chalupas, tostaguacs and enchiladas. And the niños (or children) are acknowledged not only with tacos and the like but also with hot dogs and chicken fingers ($3.75).
The affordable price structure prevails with the drinks. Ten Mexican beers go for $3.50 each, a liter of sangria or house wine may set a local record at an incomprehensible $9.50, while a 16-ounce margarita comes in at $4.75. I trust the lamentable absence of salt on the rim of the margarita glass is not an example of cost-cutting.
In the unlikely situation that you find yourself still hungry after finishing off one of Grand Azteca's oversized platters, the desserts are worth sampling. The Mexican-style flan, surrounded by vanilla syrup, is surprisingly delicate considering what precedes it on the menu. In addition, fried ice cream, deep-fried French vanilla, coated with honey, layered over with whipped cream and chocolate syrup and served in a pie shell is a well-conceived, if busy, Mexican sundae.
The cheery, efficient and helpful servers and staff appear to be all Latin American, some of whom have only a rudimentary command of English. They did commit a cardinal restaurant sin on one occasion when several of them began vacuuming noisily near our table. You can appreciate their concern about cleanliness but also wish they would use silent carpet sweepers to tidy up.
For aficionados of Mexican cuisine in the Detroit area, the question is how well any suburban cantina compares to those in southwest Detroit. Grand Azteca will not supplant Mexicantown favorites, but it will do when suburbanites need a fajita fix and do not have the inclination to drive downtown, considering our record-breaking gasoline prices.
And, of course, will that drive downtown produce anything more than a satisfied burp and an "OK" when the last nacho scrap has disappeared?
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.