An assortment of baskets adorn the ceiling of Azteca Mexican Grill's dining room, all turned upside-down. It is a striking part of the family-owned Oklahoma City restaurant's ever-changing interior which boasts authentic Mexican artwork, handcrafted goods, and rotating seasonal themes in decor. Like everything about Azteca, the baskets carry a special meaning that represents the care that owners Alejandrina Camarena and Raul Perez strive to bring to every meal.
“For most cultures, [baskets are] the representation of food storage or abundance," Camarena said. "When you turn them upside-down, it means that you are pouring blessings and abundance into the room. I choose to believe that is true.”
Celebrating its fifth anniversary in August, Azteca has become an increasingly favored option for OKC Mexican food lovers since stepping into the former San Marcos location near May Avenue and the Interstate 44 Service Road. The menu appeals to Tex-Mex traditions — chips and queso, enchiladas, rice and beans — while offering more authentic coastal cuisine staples like its caldo siete mares and seafood ceviche. Diners looking to straddle the line between different and familiar would do well to try Azteca's mole enchilada or milanesa dishes. Both are excellent options amidst a thoughtfully chosen selection of entrées.
Azteca's menu has been fine-tuned over the past five years, with items being added, removed, or upgraded more often than the average restaurant. The costilla de cerco (pork ribs), for instance, did not start as an official menu item. It was introduced as a temporary special that experimented with sauce preparations before landing into the configuration that is sold today. The owners pay close attention to the preferences of their customers and see change as an opportunity to best accommodate them. As another example, the "Azteca Fit" menu was created especially for those with certain dietary needs while also serving as a reminder that authentic Mexican food is not inherently unhealthy.
"[Our menu] consists of gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, and keto options," Camarena said.
More flexible eaters, however, might consider Azteca's quesabirria, one of the kitchen's recent additions, which has proven especially popular in the wake of America's obsession with birria tacos. Packed with cheese and served with consomme, the quesabirria is a crisp, juicy indulgence that bursts with flavor in each bite.
While restaurateurs Camarena and Perez are cognizant of food trends like birria, some of their best items have been around from the outset. One standout, Azteca's torta ahogada, is not only a scrumptious (and very filling) sandwich with a ranchera-soaked bun that would make a French dip envious. It is also a signature dish from the home country.
“Torta ahogada is one of the specialties of my native Guadalajara. We have it on our menu as a tribute. The fusion of tomatoes, vinegar, cumin, oregano, and garlic is full of flavor," Camarena said. "The drowned sandwich was invented in the 1900s and is a very popular dish among Hispanics.”
Guadalajara, Mexico, is where it all started for Camarena and Perez, who are married with two children. Camarena had been living and working in Oklahoma City for a while to support her family back home before they met. While visiting Guadalajara, she and Perez became acquainted, and, like a grand gesture in a romance novel, he followed her back.
"I came here to make a life with her," Perez said.
The family has taken to Oklahoma City with contagious enthusiasm. In addition to happily serving diners at Azteca, the business has engaged with the community in charitable ways. It has used its platform to work with local homeless outreach program Sandwiches with Love, and it is also an Adopt-a-Highway sponsor for the stretch of Interstate near the restaurant.
"We are part of a society that needs each other," Camarena said. "We are able to cultivate relationships with honesty and respect, and we receive the same and more from Oklahoma City."
It is rare to visit Azteca without seeing Camarena on-site, who makes a point to greet guests and has a striking memory for returning parties. She often sports colorful, traditionally threaded dresses, as if to remind patrons that every day at Azteca is an occasion to dress up. Just as OKC is a home away from home for her family, she offers the same welcome to her guests.
While there is plenty of festive energy at Azteca, the restaurant adds a special touch for celebratory reservations like birthday parties or graduations. Tables are pushed together and covered with a vibrant tablecloth. Much like the restaurant's clay dishes that carry much of the cuisine from day to day, the blanket-like cloth is an offering that the average commercial enterprise would veto lest it becomes irreparably stained or damaged. As a local business whose bottom line extends beyond profits, however, Azteca is pleased to share its cherished traditions — in this case, estamos de manteles largos — with its guests.
The feeling is mutual. Not only does Azteca have a loyal customer base that grows every year, but the community that the owners have helped shape in their corner of the city has given back. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the restaurant was one of many to strike hardship, and it weathered the storm.
“When the governor announced that the dining room needed to be closed due to COVID, those were scary moments because we were not a to-go restaurant, but the next day, the community started to call," Camarena said.
While the restaurant would work to establish patio dining areas to help lessen the blow of quarantine, it couldn't have sustained the year without an influx of take-out orders. Under a makeshift car-side delivery system, customers kept the business afloat.
"I will never forget it,” Camarena said.
With five years of passionate restaurant work behind them and a steady foundation of clientele built, one might assume the owners would be ready to coast on their success, but instead, they continue to seek ways to improve Azteca. It is a perpetual quest.
"I will run out of ways when I get tired of this place," Camarena said, "and I don’t think that can be possible."