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El Azteca

Out of a possible five

Cozy restaurant has best black bean soup

With more than 35 years of service and a loyal customer base as solid as the foundation of the century-old building it calls home, the owners of El Azteca can’t be faulted for doing things a bit differently.

For doing things the way they want to.

Like salsa? This Mexican restaurant on East State Boulevard will serve you salsa, but it will be a bright green version made from tomatillos that brings more freshness than spice to the palate.

Like guacamole? Your dishes here aren’t garnished with the thick, chunky, tomato-spiked norm; you get a version whipped so light and airy that it comes from a piping bag and has the same texture as sour cream, which they also pipe out to form attractive designs atop entrées.

Like chimichangas? At El Azteca, the chimis aren’t cylindrical burritos dropped into a deep fryer; they are single tortillas wrapped around fillings and tied at the top to form crispy little purses of sorts.

And although different, I enjoyed them all.

A spicier, more traditional red salsa is also available, and I experimented by alternating between and even mixing both with fresh, warm tortilla chips. The guacamole shined atop chips, along with seven other ingredients – refried beans, jack cheese, jalapenos, diced tomato, shredded lettuce, black olives and sour cream – in the Nachos Crispies appetizer.

These nachos are made with flour tortillas instead of the traditional corn, which were served with the salsa. The flour tortillas fry up lighter and crispier, and each of these chips was topped with the smooth, creamy guacamole and sour cream working beautifully with the chewy cheese and starchy beans.

The best appetizer, however, is El Azteca’s black bean soup, which is the best I have ever had. It’s an original recipe of late owner Mike Ray, whose wife, Juanita, still oversees things at the restaurant. The soup has an underlying sweetness – from red peppers, perhaps? The menu says the beef fideo soup is “the one that made us famous,” but I found it to be rather plain with just a thin, salty beef broth full of angel hair pasta.

The Mariscos chimichanga was stuffed with salad-sized shrimp, dime-sized scallops and bits of crab enveloped in a sweet, creamy and not at all heavy white sauce. The exterior was just like the Crispies – thin and light – and stayed crunchy even after I broke it open and the sauce oozed out.

Another thing that separates El Azteca from many other Mexican restaurants in Fort Wayne is its cozy, home-like atmosphere. And although I loved the interior, the patio was even more pleasant. Attractive ceiling fans with pepper-shaped blades circulated above from the slatted, wooden deck cover that let just enough sun shine through. The service was not lax outdoors, either. Chips and salsa hit my table within a minute of my party nestling in, and a server was not far behind. A drink station on the deck, which closes Oct. 11, prevented any shortages in that department, and I was at ease throughout the meal.

Margaritas always taste better when consumed outdoors, and El Azteca has the city’s finest offerings of the tequila-based cocktail with 18 varieties that can be made from more than 100 types of tequila. My favorite was the sweet and sour prickly pear-infused margarita, which tasted like a mix between strawberry and grapefruit. El Azteca infuses tequila with the cactus fruit on site to make it.

Another interesting mix was the stewed Baby Benji burrito. A smaller lunch version of El Azteca’s Gigante wet burrito, it was filled with a sort of carnitas-meets-barbacoa marriage of stringy stewed beef and pork. The meats were blended well with big chunks of it here and there, and the whole thing was drenched in a smoky red chile sauce and covered with melted Colby cheese.

The herbed chicken tamales were quite the opposite of the robust Benji. Sweet masa was stuffed with roasted chicken lightly seasoned with the tomatillo salsa, cilantro and garlic. Served in traditional corn husk wraps, they were moist throughout and simply delicious, even though I did not find them to be very herbaceous.

The biggest disappointment was the chicken mole appetizer. The sauce was fine, but the half chicken breast was terribly dry.

Both desserts I tried were above par, but the chocolate flan was a better choice than the fried ice cream. The flan was dark and smooth, almost like chocolate mousse, and was topped with shaved almonds that added just the right nutty crunch.

Restaurant: El Azteca

Address: 535 E. State Blvd.

Phone: 482-2172

Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Nachos Crispies ($8.09 to $10.69), chicken mole ($8.39), soup (fideo $2.59 cup; $3.29 bowl; black bean $2.69; $3.39), stewed baby Benji ($7.99), Mariscos chimi ($14.99), herbed chicken tamales ($6.79), dessert ($3.49)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the website, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.