Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Tight quarters, overflowing tastes at Rey Azteca in Carmichael

Later, after indulging in more dishes than we should have, two dining pals and I agreed that a fitting description of the Mexican restaurant Rey Azteca is “a little place with big food.”

Earlier, we’d found the taqueria along Fair Oaks Boulevard, went inside and were greeted by a wall of happy noise in a dimly lit space with low, dark ceilings. Hmm, why are all the wood blinds shut? A few art pieces and a mural made the walls move in even closer, especially the ones paneled in dark wood.

Every booth and table was full of diners having a grand time. Margaritas flowed, conversation buzzed, good humor set the tone.

“This tiny place sure holds a lot of people,” said pal No. 1. “It’s almost claustrophobic.”

“I think it’s adorable,” said pal No. 2.

I landed somewhere in the middle, but did mention the patio outside.

We took seats inside and looked around. The San Francisco Giants battled the Colorado Rockies on several TV screens. Just above our table, an in-wall air-conditioning unit hummed steadily. It was partially patched with duct tape on the bottom.

In nearly choreographed motions, the confident servers gracefully weaved through the room, carrying huge trays laden with Godzilla-size platters of good-looking food. A woman at a neighboring booth prepared to dive into a burrito the size of a football. At a nearby table, a mom and dad and their two children were digging into a heap of cheese nachos and a plate of fragrant fajitas.

Service can make or wreck a dining experience, no matter where it is. Our server, Sergio, was attentive, personable and informative, despite being slammed with multiple tables.

We went to the self-serve tortilla-chip counter, found crispy chips warming under heat lamps, filled paper-lined plastic baskets, and chose from seven salsas. A favorite was sour cream-jalapeño, but we were looking for more heat.

“Do you have any really hot salsa?” I asked Sergio.

“How hot?”

“Very hot.”

He brought a cup of reddish sauce. “This is habanero salsa,” he said with a smile. “We keep it in the refrigerator and don’t put it on the salsa bar.”

It was fiery and addictive, and we all liked it so much that one pal bought a container to go.

We cruised the cumbersome, plastic-covered menus and saw dozens of familiar dishes, many depicted in color photographs, sort of like the displays at some sushi restaurants ($2.50 to $15). You won’t find some of the items on more “mainstream” Mexican restaurants, though. One such is molcajete, a pestle-like bowl filled with steak, chicken, pork, chorizo, shrimp, cheese and cactus in sauce. “If you’re in a restaurant that serves it, the place gets points on the authenticity scale,” said a knowledgeable friend later.

We started with a 12-by-8-inch platter of cerviche Azteca, a chilled mix of tilapia and small shrimp in a dice of onion, tomato, carrot and green olive that had marinated in lime juice, firm and tasty enough. With it were slices of perfectly ripe avocado and crisp tostadas.

Tilapia shows up on menus everywhere, so let’s get it straight: It’s the generic name for about 100 species of closely related freshwater fish native to Africa and now raised on aquaculture farms. We Americans eat about 500 million pounds of it a year, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its firm white flesh picks up the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with, a chameleon characteristic that makes it versatile and convenient in restaurant kitchens.

Next up was Azteca shrimp in deeply flavored citrus sauce, served with excellent cilantro-lime rice and firm black beans, the “wow!” dish on the table. “Whatever’s in that sauce, it’s fantastic,” said pal No. 1. We rolled up the sweet, crisp shrimp, rice and beans in flour tortillas and dipped them in an array of salsas. Oh, yeah.

Also on the table: a vivid-green poblano pepper overstuffed with veggies and cheese. “It’s been blistered exactly the way it should be,” said pal No. 2. It was so big that cutting into it was like carving a turkey.

The flautas (deep-fried flour tortillas) were dough-heavy, but the roasted-and-shredded pork (carnitas) inside them had flavor to spare. We thought the chicken tamale was meat-light and a bit dry (though the masa was very good), and the cheese enchilada more akin to a gooey grilled cheese sandwich. Surprisingly, the enchilada sauce tasted like bitter tomato sauce.

Pal No. 2 called the chicken mole “fabulous.” Two drumsticks and a wing swam in a sauce redolent with smoked chilies, dark with Mexican chocolate and slightly cobbled with ground peanuts.

The dishes came with a plenitude of Spanish rice, refried beans, guacamole, sour cream and tortillas. “We’ve got so many flavors here, but everything has its own taste,” said pal No. 2.

Pulling out of the parking lot, pal No. 1 remarked, “I would never have stopped here on my own, but I’ll be back.”

Me, too.