Having lived in Michigan for quite awhile now, I have learned that there are two things Michigan State Spartans are proud of (and you definitely don't want to get into an argument about). First, Spartan Basketball. Basketball season cannot come any sooner after another heartbreaking football season. Second, El Azteco or El Az as the Sparties fondly call this Mexican joint across from campus.
I have never really heard of El Az until last fall when I started noticing facebook postings on every visit to this East Lansing institution from JW loyal guests', John and Steph Schlinker. I finally started asking my MSU friends about it, and sure enough, next to Spartan basketball, El Az scores a close second.
My first visit to El Az came at the expense of the Spartans loss to my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes in the last two-seconds of their epic gridiron battle in East Lansing last October. You better believe I was feeling good. Not even the long line after the game to get in to El Az bothered me. They could have served raw ground beef wet burritos and I still would have been content.
My group dove into the chips and salsa like animals. The seasoned tostado chips were amazingly addicting. The salsa was hot, but not too hot, with the the perfect texture and visible brunoise of chile's. The steak burrito was huge and was equally as good as the chips and salsa. Perfecto!
So I made the trip back to El Az this week to give this dive a second helping. This time, I made sure I ordered the El Az cheese dip the Schlinker's have been raving about. This is not your typical bright yellow, bordering a heart attack in a bowl, kind of cheese dip. It's a combination of cottage cheese, sour cream, meunster and El Az's secret spices. I am not a big sour cream guy, but with each chip full of dip, the dish slowly grows on you. I still prefer a good salsa, but I can now see why people get addicted to this stuff.
To add variety to my usual fajita or burrito order, I asked for the fideo plate. Fideo is Spanish for pasta. I have had sopa de fideo in Spain, served with broken vermicelli pieces, but this fideo at El Az was straight up long vermicelli. The fideo is cooked in chicken broth, tomatoes, onions and potatoes and served with frijoles, tortilla and a choice of chicken leg or thigh. I went of course for the best part of the chicken - the thigh. This is cowboy food common in the ranches of northern Mexico. After seeing the chicken thigh, the Asian in me started wishing for white rice instead of the fideo. No problem, I am for authenticity and just as the cowboys do, I dug in as if I just spent the entire day rounding up cattle. The chicken thigh was good, but the fideo lacked a little punch, and some color, too. A little cilantro would have made a huge difference in the taste and presentation. Not bad, but not memorable. Well, now I know. This gives me another reason to come back and try my steak burrito again. Always go with your first instinct. Always.