Over the past year or so, two long-standing Mexican joints along May Avenue—San Marcos and Chelino’s—shut their doors for good and, rather quickly, were replaced by a pair of somewhat similar restaurants, Azteca Mexican Grill at 4024 N. May and Armando’s Mexican Grill at 5900 N. May, respectively.
Both former favorites of mine, I was admittedly trepidatious about these new cantinas, thinking that they both were going to be imitaciones pálidas of those former eateries that has held Oklahoma City in queso-covered rapture for an untold number of years. But, after trying these self-described grills over the past few weeks, I can wholeheartedly say that they do live up to any and every Tex-Mex standard that border-based food-fans have come to expect around here.
Azteca Mexican Grill
With a newly painted frontage and an almost totally redone interior—complete with, oddly enough, a gift shop of sorts—Azteca Mexican Grill is definitely the classier of the two. Colorful words like “hope” now cover the walls, which also seem to be a brighter shade, adding a delightful cheer to the place. It also adds a bit of a forced elegance that San Marcos didn’t have or, really, didn’t need. But, still…
The menu adds quite a few new items to the sizzling rotation; más impresionante to me was the Torta Ahogada ($10.99), whimsically described here as a “drawn submarine sandwich,” which, I guess kind of fits; it’s a typical torta sandwich filled with pork and frijoles, but with the added bonus of being fully submerged in a special salsa roja and topped with frisky onions.
Man, believe me when I tell you that this variation on the torta was truly a magical thing; the insides blissfully stuffed to the point of overflowing, with the tangy sauce making the sandwich ever so blando when you cut a free bite or two with your fork and knife. With a tall glass of their homemade horchata at the side, can I say that Azteca might be a few notches better than the former San Marcos?
The owner of Armando’s, according to my waiter, is the hermano of the proprietor of Chelino’s, but please, don’t confuse the two, because this eatery does its own thing and does it well; forget that the insides are practically the same, with the exception of the word “Armando’s’ painted in a couple of places, as well as a few festive balloons here and there.
So while it’s definitely reminiscent of Chelino’s, it still works here, giving off a “homey” vibe, someplace that your abuela might pick after church if she’s too tired to cook; offering a special selection of “100% Guanajuato Style” eats on the menu, I was immediately drawn to the offbeat Guiso Especial ($12.99), a meal consisting of beef-tips cooked in tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and, of course, assorted secret spices, then topped with fresh avocado and—why the Hell not?—a fried egg.
More of a viscous stew, of sorts, this Guiso, while not very hot is quite flavorful actually, the fresh-cut vegetables mingling provocatively with the delightfully charred beef-tips, the egg a wonderfully messy touch. With the patented sides of beans and rice, it’s a meal that’ll even force Guanajuato’s famed mummies to return to their crypts, aptly satisfied; a truly worthy follow-up to the former familial wizardry that Chelino’s spun at this location.
But, besides all that, with plenty of San Marcos and Chelino’s dives still located throughout the city, it’s good to see these worthy successors taking their place and, even better, successfully competing in a crowded market with tremendous dishes at mostly decent prices. And, if I may offer one more piece of advice…try not to forget the usually gratis sopapillas like I tend to. Cómpralo (doble) ya!