Good to Go takeout: El Azteca in Clarksville

Simon Cortes recently joined his father's 16-year-old business, which regularly garners
Simon Cortes recently joined his father's 16-year-old business, which regularly garners "best Mexican" accolades in the Clarksville area. (James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gilberto Cortes knows what his customers at El Azteca like: mostly tacos, fajitas and nachos laden with beans, cheese and salsa. But that doesn't mean he sticks to the standbys. He says it took him five years to convince his Howard County constituency that mole isn't chicken slathered in Hershey's sauce, and he created a clever riff on the oversize burrito, which is, let's face it, more California than Mexico.

He opened El Azteca with 16 seats in 1992 on what was then a lone strip mall on a rural stretch of Clarksville Pike. Over the years, Cortes expanded the place as the mix of familiar fare and authentic recipes from his native cuisine (he grew up in a village not far from Guadalajara) earned a loyal following.

The carryout offerings are nearly identical to the sit-down fare; for the most part, the food to go, wrapped in foil and packed in plastic foam containers, weathers the commute. Feel free to ask that taco shells be packed separately.

These days, Cortes says, the chicken mole ($14.95) is his second-best seller, after everybody's favorite: fajitas. There's only a hint of bitter chocolate in the dark sauce, along with the chili peppers and dried fruit that add to its mystery.

By all means, order from the section of the menu labeled "Gilberto's Specialties," where you will find mole (the sauce also appears in an enchilada), as well as rainbow trout Mantequilla, a whole trout grilled with garlic butter and white wine ($15.95), and Asada de Puerco ($14.50), cumin-flavored pork in chili sauce. The sauteed shrimp Al Ajillo is rich with garlic and butter, while the A la Mexicana version is tossed with tomatoes, mushrooms and broccoli (both $15.95). Most everything comes with sides of refried red beans and yellow rice.

The rest of the menu falls into more familiar classifications: hard- or soft-shelled tacos filled with steak, sausage or chicken; burritos with meat or beans, including Cortes's riff made with tenderloin tips sauteed with red wine, shallots and mushrooms; and chimichangas, one version of which is stuffed with crab and shrimp.

Enchiladas ($11.95 to $12.95) sport wrappings of thick corn tortillas: The verde version features fall-apart-tender pork layered with strips of soft tomatillos, the suprema contains chicken and beef, and the blanca contains melted cheese and sour cream.

Soups, salads, appetizers and sides stick with the Mexican theme, although there is a Caesar salad and a generic, iceberg-cherry tomato house salad. A generous two-person portion of guacamole, appropriately lumpy as if smashed by hand, is served in a crisp tortilla bowl with chips ($7.95).

A brief roster of sandwiches ($6.95 to $8.50) -- two burgers and a chicken breast club -- will please the less adventuresome, though northern palates have nothing to fear in any case: The one element Cortes seems to have left back home is the tongue-numbing spiciness of some food found in Mexico.

Along with steady "best Mexican" accolades, El Azteca has received the annual best margarita award from Howard magazine for the past decade. Recently, Cortes's 27-year-old son Simon joined the business. He's bringing in a younger crowd by sprucing up the inventory with aged tequilas. Those, however, are not on the carryout menu.

-- Martha Thomas

El Azteca 12218 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville, 410-531-3001, Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (kitchen open until 9 p.m.); Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to midnight (kitchen open until 10 p.m.).

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