What surprised me on my first visit to Azul Mexican and American Bar & Grill (43 E. Ninth St., 602-2279)—which recently morphed out of what was the Bar at the Ambassador—wasn’t the south-of-the-border menu. Nor the minor changes in décor.
No, the biggest surprise was that the menu seemed so, well, standard. Tacos? Check. Fajitas? Check. Quesadillas? Check. Calamari? … OK, so there were a few small surprises.
But, on paper, the Azul offerings weren’t that different from that of a chain Mexican eatery—which led me to a longer-than-usual delay in ordering. Usually, in a locally owned joint, there’s some indication of what an eatery is pushing or is particularly proud of. Not here.
The next, happier, surprise: Much of what was sampled on two visits exceeded expectations. While dramatic twists and culinary leaps weren’t evident at Azul, a solid commitment to delivering a satisfying meal seems an integral part of the bar’s face-lift.
With a bowl of chips and some fresh and flavorful salsa already on the table, I was hoping to try a chip-free appetizer. Aforementioned calamari aside, there wasn’t much to pick from, so I went with the Guacamole ($5), which was chunky and densely good—and surrounded by another bowl of chips.
The Azul Enchilada ($7) had a nice sweet sauce, but was otherwise unmemorable. The Veggie Burrito ($8), where mushrooms seemed to muscle out just about everything else, was a disappointment. But the Pollo Ranchero ($9) was terrific. Just as a quality supporting
actor can help a lead performer, a main dish can benefit from its sides. In this case, it was obvious some care went into preparing the creamy refried beans (with a bit of cheese melted on top), Mexican rice and refreshing mini salad/garnish option of lettuce and diced tomatoes. The chicken itself, dressed but not lost in a rich red sauce, was pounded to just the right thickness.
But the winner—and the choice I’d return for—came as another surprise.
To me, quesadillas are the spaghetti of the Mexican restaurant menu—something I have trouble rationalizing ordering because I know how cheaply and decently they can be made at home. I’ll make an exception, though, for Azul’s Diabla Quesadilla ($8), where a hot and crisp-from-the-grill flour tortilla didn’t just hold but became deliciously one with a finely chopped chorizo sausage and chicken mix.
I’ll take quality cooking over inventive menu writing any day.•
Third in a month-long series of looks at newer downtown eateries.