There are four things that are important when judging a restaurant. The food. The service. The ambience. The value. The relative importance of each though varies on who is doing the judging.
I am a foodie and, as a foodie, I will tolerate leaky tin shacks, snottily obnoxious waiters, and obscenely-priced chef’s tables. All for the thrill of the taste. Sometimes, though, I must take off my foodie hat. Because I come across a restaurant that I have to tip it to. For the restaurant scores well…no make that very well…on every single one of those four measurement standards. And that is as rare as a parking space on Saturday night in Centro in San Miguel de Allende.
I’d been going there for years. Fourteen years by my best count. But it was only recently that I realized how really good this place was. Because it was only recently that I went there for dinner.
You see I’d always thought of this place as a bar. Just as, despite some very good meals, I always think of Berlin or Hank’s as bars. And just like Berlin or Hank’s, I’d always say “let’s meet there” not “let’s eat there”.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t ever eaten there. Almost every time I went there I ate there. But it was always just something to hold me over until dinner. And it was almost always…no get rid of that almost…it was always the same thing. Something called the jicama taco. A dish that almost has legendary status in this town.
If you know about the jicama taco, you probably know the place I’m talking about is La Azotea. But interestingly, I’ve met people who’ve lived in San Miguel for a decade who don’t know La Azotea. This might be even more difficult to believe if you know that La Azotea is just half a block from the jardin, the center of San Miguel’s social universe.
The reason some people don’t know about La Azotea is La Azotea has no sign. Well there is a sign but that sign says Pueblo Viejo and Pueblo Viejo is the name of the restaurant on the ground floor and Pueblo Viejo is a restaurant where San Miguelenses rarely tread. In four years of counting votes for the Smart Awards that honor San Miguel’s favorite restaurants, I can’t remember a single vote for Pueblo Viejo.
If you venture into the doors leading to Pueblo Viejo, pass the jewellery store on the right (“Come on, Honey, we don’t want to be late.”), then pass the quaint wooden vegetable stand with the braids of garlic also on the right, an always present host or hostess will attempt to welcome (aka lure) you into the restaurant. You will say something that includes the word arriba and then turn to the right, head up some rickety wooden stairs, check yourself out in a full length mirror, and you’re there.
Long ago when I started this blog post, I mentioned that La Azotea was one of those extremely rare, almost Dodo-like restaurants that scored big on all four of the all-important restaurant measurements. So let’s go through them.
The Ambience at La Azotea
Hardly anyone says let’s go to La Azotea. Almost everyone says let’s go to La Azotea for the sunset. And the sun going down is one of my favorite excuses for a drink going down. When the sun is splashing pinks and yellows and oranges there are not too many better places in San Miguel. Surrounding walls block some of the views but also block the wind on March nights and there are also ample propane heaters for the Winter months. There are quite a few good roofs in San Miguel, La Azotea is one of the best roofs in San Miguel.
The Service at La Azotea
La Azotea is owned by a couple of gentlemen who own Pueblo Viejo downstairs. It’s managed…no make that very well managed…by their nephew Eduardo Calvo. Eduardo glides through the room…actually three different rooms…directing the bartenders and servers and never being too self important to wait on or clear tables himself.
La Azotea is one of those places where, if you’re a serious drinker, again like Berlin and Hank’s, you want to be in the bar area, not in the other rooms. The servers are serious servers, not between jobs or looking for better jobs. They ask the right questions, “Con rocas y sal, Senor?” And deliver as requested.
That last time I was in La Azotea, I asked Eduardo Salvo to solve that mystery of why the bar/restaurant had no sign.
“It is a small place. We always want to have room for our regulars”, said Eduardo. “If we had a sign, there might not be room for you tonight.”
I liked the answer.
The Prices at La Azotea
Lots of bars and restaurants have happy hours. La Azotea has happy nights. From Monday to Thursday, from open to close, margaritas, mojitos and glasses of house red and house white (good house red and house white I should add) are two for one.
The tapas average about $120 so a couple can share three appies and have four drinks and be out of there for just over $500 plus a good tip for the good service.
And one more thing about low prices. Well, actually, lower than low. Actually, free. The spicy nuts in the most innovative glass dispenser ever are addictive.
The Food at La Azotea
I admitted it earlier. I’d had fourteen years of serious drinking at La Azotea without one night of serious eating until a couple of weeks ago when it was time for a farewell get-together and our friend Lorain suggested we not only go to but stay at La Azotea for dinner.
La Azotea has what I call a grazing menu, a menu that’s meant for sharing, which is my favorite kind of menu. There are some very traditional Spanish tapas and some more Mexican-inspired appetizers.
We started with the jicama taco because it is almost impossible not to start with the jicama taco. The jicama isn’t on the inside, it’s on the outside, sliced razor thin to replace the traditional tortilla. Inside is a deep fried shrimp, a lightly spiced mayo and the crowning achievement, crispy leaks. Unique and awesome.
The other dishes were not far behind. There was a spring roll that was more like a good old-fashioned egg roll with chicken, corn, peppers, onions and a sweet and sour sauce.
Both of the tostadas, one tuna, one salmon, were very different but both very delicious.
The serrano ham croquettes were in as close to as perfect a golden crust as I’ve ever seen or tasted.
And dessert. Definitely worth saving room for. Especially the chocolate brownie.
Scoring four out of four is an extraordinary achievement when it comes to measuring the merits of a restaurant. This is one of only three that come to mind in San Miguel that warrant big scores in ambience, service, food and value.
My suggestion? Don’t do what I did for all those years. Don’t just meet at La Azotea. Eat at La Azotea.