Azteca Mexican restaurant and Margarita de Mentor bar delight the taste buds and devour the wallet

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When Ruby Tuesday opened a location on Diamond Center Drive in Mentor more than a decade ago, the restaurant field wasn’t as crowded as it is today. Over the years, as the competition increased, you could practically see the shine of the spot wear off.

The chain was struggling and closing stores even before the pandemic hit, and when COVID-19 hit here, it was easy to predict Mentor’s location would be a casualty. It closed in August 2020, but it didn’t take long for a new concept to join the Diamond Center restaurant roster.

The Mexican restaurant Azteca and the Margarita bar now occupy the property, whose exterior has been completely revamped. The bones of the building are mostly the same – except for a very cool outdoor dining addition – but the brick has been painted charcoal gray, and the awnings and trim are now of a elegant black. The building has certainly been modernized.

Inside, it’s always part bar, part dining room. It’s amazing how removing the monstrous salad bar from the previous occupant can open up the space. There are Spanish-style tile accents, plenty of Day of the Dead-inspired decorations that are ubiquitous in newer Mexican locations, and an upscale, dark-toned vibe. Azteca is operated by the same group of owners as Tres Potrillos in Beachwood, which is also a remodeled former local restaurant and has been part of the facility since 2009. As renovators, the owners’ experience shows that.

Opened in November, Azteca offers a large menu that is a mix of traditional Mexican offerings and a few contemporary twists. My two favorite Mexican places in Northeast Ohio are drastically different, one billed as “mod-Mex” and the other offering Mexican “street food”, and trying to mix the two seems difficult to achieve. When three “street” tacos cost you $14, it can feel like you’re paying for the ambiance.

And that feeling doesn’t stop there.

Azteca’s Burrito Gigante ($13.50) consists of your choice of several meats, plus rice, beans and green salsa, topped with melted cheese and served with greens, tomatoes and cream safe. (Mark Koestner – For the News-Herald)

I visited my teenage son on a recent Thursday when the wife was out of town and the youngster was at Grandma’s. When our server asked for our drink order, I really couldn’t smell any of the various Mexican beers on tap, so I opted for a large Miller Lite, which was $7.50. A weekday. During typical happy hour time. I couldn’t help but think I was helping fund the renovations.

We started with a quesadilla sampler ($10.50), which might have been the best value of the meal. It comes with two quesadilla-sized half tortillas, one chicken and cheese and one steak and cheese, served with sour cream and pico de gallo. Everything was very fresh and the steak version was particularly tasty. It could have been a starter for one, and it was probably above average when it came to quesadilla dishes.

As good as it sounds, a search online will tell you that the same appetizer in Beachwood is $8.95, according to the Tres Potrillos website. For some, that might be a tough bite to swallow between sips of a $7.50 Miller Lite.

For my entree, I went with the Burrito Gigante ($13.50), which consists of your choice of multiple meats, plus rice, beans, and green salsa, topped with melted cheese and served with greens. , tomatoes and sour cream. I chose the pork al pastor because it’s my favorite Mexican meat, but the real al pastor is hung on a hook and slowly roasted Shawarma style with pineapple seeping from the top. If there isn’t a place in Lake County that actually pulls off this culinary miracle, there is one that produces a reasonable facsimile. It’s not that.

I don’t think “everyone does it” is a good argument, but if you charge more than others who do it better, that’s even harder to sell.

Again, everything was fresh. I might not call the burrito “gigantic”, but I might not call what it was topped with “melted cheese” either. It was a cheese sauce with some complexity, which I certainly enjoyed. There is a chef who thought of that. It’s skillfully done.

My son’s entree, the enchiladas verde (also $13.50), was similar. It’s presented as three chicken enchiladas topped with tomatillo sauce and cheese, served with rice, lettuce and sour cream, and the tomatillo cheese filling was really good. I feel like the menu undersells the cheese sauce toppings on these dishes. They were fantastic.

Azteca’s enchiladas verde are three chicken enchiladas topped with tomatillo sauce and cheese and served with rice, lettuce and sour cream. (Mark Koestner – For the News-Herald)

Along the same lines, the salsa that comes with the free fries you get at almost every Mexican joint was really well done. It was fresh, which is always a plus, but it was also very well balanced – not spicy per se, but with just a bit of spiciness that adds to the tomato flavor. We both liked it very much.

Our service was fine. Nothing out of the ordinary, but there were no errors or ambivalence that would cause lower ratings. I’ll take it friendly and knowledgeable these days, and our server was both. The hostess who seated us was welcoming and friendly.

All in all a place I want to like but can’t. There’s a crisis of identity that will always be a problem for Mexican restaurants in the area, because the best fare is cheap in places you don’t want – or can’t – sit. I think if there was ever a Mexican food place with a modern, upscale feel that serves the same type of food you can get at the food places in Abuela around Lake County, it would be a success.

Azteca suggests we may be halfway there.

Reviews are based on an anonymous visit to a restaurant.

Azteca Mexican Restaurant and Margarita Bar

9515 Diamond Center Drive.

Mentor

440-350-7039

aztecamentor.com

Location: On the north side of Diamond Center Drive near Heisley Road in Mentor.

Type of restoration: Mexican.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday.

Alcohol and wine: Full bar.

Disabled facilities: Yes.

Credit card: All adults.

Kitchen: Mexican.

Vegetarian: Several options.

Special diets: Ask about food preferences.

Suitable for children: Welcome children.

Outdoor dining: Yes.

Dress code: Relaxed.

Reservations: Accepted.

Wireless: No.

Online order : Yes.

Delivery: No.

Prices: A bit high, considering the kitchen. Appetizers and salads mostly in the $10-$12 range; entrees mostly $13 to $24.

Assess: Just at best.

Scores (out of five):

Food: 3.

Atmosphere: 3.

Service: 3.

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