Restaurant review: Don’t miss birria queso taco at AzTec Taqueria | Dining reviews

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At AzTec Taqueria, most everything is made from scratch, including the tortillas for the tacos, said Salvador Tecpoyotl Daniel, who opened the California-style, counter-service restaurant in a new development in Verona on May 5, Cinco de Mayo.

“People seem to like that,” he said. “We’re trying to tell a story through our food and the adversity that we faced.”

Tecpoyotl Daniel’s family moved from Puebla, Mexico, to Fresno, California, when he was 4, and at 11, he started working in the fields harvesting grapes for raisins, which he called labor-intensive.

“It was the closest thing to slavery,” he said, adding that they often worked in 100-degree heat with no water or food breaks. “From sunrise to sunset, 14, 16 hours.”

The family moved to Madison in 2004 after about 15 years of farm work, he said.

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Tecpoyotl Daniel’s youngest brother, Rob, was at the counter taking orders during my visit. He asked if I wanted onions and cilantro on my tacos and gave me a choice of salsas. I wound up with pico de gallo and it was full of bright red diced tomato.

The large, white, hand-formed corn tortillas set AzTec’s tacos apart.

Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal

It’s the large, white, hand-formed corn tortillas that set the restaurant apart. They aren’t the uniform yellow corn tortillas most Mexican restaurants double up. Tacos here come with one ply.

The asada (steak, $3.25), al pastor (pork, $3,50), camarón enchilado taco (marinated shrimp, $4.50) and slow-cooked adobo tofu ($3.25), were all decent, but the star of the show was the birria queso taco ($4.50), which gets a menu category all its own.

Birria, which is gaining in popularity as a taco and burrito filling, is a meat stew made with chili peppers, garlic, cumin, bay leaves and thyme, cooked at low heat, making the meat, often lamb or beef, more tender and juicy.

The tortilla here came stuffed with shredded beef, cilantro, onions, melted queso Oaxaca and salsa, and was served with a little cup of consommé. It had been grilled in oily birria juice, the cheese melding the edges of the tortilla together.

Queso taco AzTec Taqueria

The birria queso taco comes stuffed with shredded beef, cilantro, onions, melted queso Oaxaca and salsa and is served with a little cup of consommé. 

Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal

My daughter appreciated the tofu taco, because it’s not something we’ve encountered in a Mexican restaurant before. I was only so-so on it. Tecpoyotl Daniel said the cubes of tofu are cooked in a secret red adobo sauce. “It’s gotten a lot of praise from the vegan community,” he said.

The burritos ($10.25) don’t use homemade tortillas, but 14½-inch ones Tecpoyotl Daniel gets from California. He said the average burrito tortillas are 12 or 13 inches. The beef birria burrito we ordered was excellent, with rice, pinto beans, cilantro and onions, and served with the restaurant’s fantastic salsa verde. It’s described as medium, and had the perfect amount of heat.

The salad AzTeca ($11) was another hit, even though it was strange to eat a salad in a paper-lined basket. It came with two small containers of dressing, one creamy and one oil-based. The avocado and poblano pepper one was particularly good.

AzTec salad at AzTec Taqueria

The salad AzTeca comes in a paper-lined basket.

Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal

The combination of spring mix and romaine was ideal, and there was plenty of sliced ripe tomato, white onion and well-seasoned grilled chicken. The corn had been sliced from the cob in the kitchen, because some of the kernels were still connected. It was topped with cotija cheese, cilantro and two small scoops of guacamole.

The horchata ($3.50), a rice milk drink, was too sweet at first, but terrific once some of the ice melted. The two agua frescas ($3.50) were the real deal. The pineapple-mango had lots of small pieces of fruit pulp. The cucumber-lime had bits of those two ingredients.

During our visit, at 6:30 p.m. on a Monday night, every table filled up on the 41-seat patio, including part of the five-stool counter.

The outdoor area features faux marble tables with umbrellas and sturdy, colorful chairs. Our view was of the nearby Pizza Ranch.

Mural at AzTec Taqueria

A mural by Madison artist Julie Vornholt brings excitement and beauty to the room.

Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal

Salvador Tecpoyotl Daniel, friendly and gracious, brought the food out himself, calling out customers’ names. Since we weren’t asked for a name at the counter, I assumed he was getting them from the credit cards.

When I asked him later, he said he takes them from the point-of-sale Square system, which he called “very advanced.”

Tecpoyotl Daniel said he makes sure every item out of the kitchen goes through him. He also got my name right on the first try, not an easy feat.

Counter at AzTec Taqueria

Customers order at the counter at AzTec Taqueria.

Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal

Speaking of names, Tecpoyotl Daniel, who is of Mayan descent, said he spells “AzTec” the way he does to accentuate the first three letters of his second name.

His parents, Guadalupe Tecpoyotl Daniel and Carlos Tecpoyotl, prep all the ingredients: the marinades, the vegetables, the sauces. Michael Tecpoyotl Daniel, his other brother, works in the kitchen.

AzTec Taqueria feels like it could be a chain and that’s because Tecpoyotl Daniel said he spent 20 years working in fast-casual corporate restaurants, including 18 years running them. He couldn’t be persuaded to name the restaurants.

A mural by Madison artist Julie Vornholt brings excitement and beauty to the space.

Tecpoyotl Daniel owns the shop with his wife, Ashley Tecpoyotl, a stem cell scientist who works at Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics International at University Research Park and does all of the administrative work for the restaurant.

“She’s the brains of the business,” he said. “Her list of duties is pretty extensive, even though you never see her.”

AzTec Taqueria exterior

Salvador Tecpoyotl Daniel opened AzTec Taqueria in Verona on May 5, Cinco de Mayo.

Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal

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