If you have hopes of plum sauce horchata, naughty conquistadors peering from behind red fans or a gold-plated Montezuma busting through the Great Wall, yelling “I’m huhhhhhngry!” abandon them here.
Azteca Chinese offers two distinct cuisines: Mexican street food and Americanized Chinese standards, and never the twain doth meet, except for in the decor where lacquered Chinese landscapes mingle with a shrine to the Divine Baby Jesus (looking freakin’ resplendent in a pink gown with gold brocade, might I add). But amidst the anti-climax of Tenochtitlan meets Nanjing, you’ll find some fantastic Mexican street food and decent Chinese (which the Mexican chef says he learned in LA).
Let’s cut to the chase here. Azteca Chinese is a dive, a slice of Mexico, and not muy linda and romanticized Mexico, but working class Mexico. The tiny interior is plain, a pale pink stucco half-heartedly decorated with plastic flowers, a wide-screen TV tuned to telenovelas and well-worn Chinese kitsch. But this here is why I love living in Albuquerque. There is no pretension, nothing slick, nothing drained by American
I’ve already mentioned the great tacos—probably because I have a bee in my taco bonnet in general, a position on tacos that I share far and wide (and it’s really the main reason I wanted this food writing gig so I can pound the rostrum re: gentrification of tacos). So thank God that Azteca Chinese’s taco of spicy grilled meat, onions, cilantro, lime and selection of salsas (here a flavorful salsa verde and fiery red chili salsa) on a warm corn tortilla, is firmly in the authentic camp. They don’t even succumb to the flavor-sucking iceberg lettuce and washed-out tomatoes that adulterate the tacos of some other taquerias in town. Add another 50 cents for carnitas and the more exotic varieties (lengua, buche, tripitas).
If you want to try something different, but not that different, the longaniza (spiced sausage) tacos are fantastic.
You also can’t go wrong with the burro for $5.50. Stuffed with tender grilled carne asada, beans, rice, guacamole, pico de gallo and served with two salsas, this sizeable, flavor-saturated burrito is the real deal emulated by the Chipotle franchise (where it’s more expensive.)
The torta Cubano ($8) is maybe where the Mexican street food jumps the shark—a big, hot democratico pile of various meats and dressings on a toasted bun. I won’t say it’s not tasty (after you remove the salchichas, which sounds delicious but is indeed a quartered hot dog), but I will say it’s not going to make you feel good about yourself after—the torta includes carnitas, bacon, pinto beans, guacamole, queso freso, a slice of bologna, a hot dog, tomato, lettuce, melted cheese, pico de gallo and salsas on the side.
As for the Chinese food, I’ll sum it up this way—there is nothing particularly bold nor offensive here. It’s not gourmet Chinese (nor would you expect it to be at $6.79 a combo plate), but it’s good for what it is. The orange chicken, with a very faint almost elusive orange flavor, gets props for not being coated in that wretched Fanta-orange cornstarch glaze. All of the vegetables are still crunchy and the chicken dishes perfectly cooked, bulls-eye moist and crisp. My favorites were the Kung Pao chicken (zucchini, red pepper, peanuts) and Szechuan chicken (onions and matchstick carrots) for their generous inclusion of fresh vegetables. The chow mein noodles are the weakest link, nothing but pasta in a light teriyaki-esque sauce.
A caveat on the Chinese food—if the guy who knows how to do Chinese is gone, it’s off the menu for the day. If you’re set on Chinese, you might want to call ahead.
As for me, I will come here just to eat carne burritos and 99 cent tacos while ogling the snowy Sandias. If a friend orders Chinese, all the better. Let those two glorious empires conjoin at our humble table. Let the comity of nations reign. It will be anticlimactic, but sometimes the climax just turns out to be hype anyway.