A nueva taquería

Azul Mexican Food and Tequila Bar

1050 20th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 447-4040

Azul fits a style I think of as nueva taqueria: The food is casual but a touch more fancified and fresher than the burrito-joint kind of place. The walls are brightly painted, and the prices are higher than what you’d pay at, say, La Fiesta. Azul fits these criteria, with its attractive deep turquoise and orange hues and big, bold art, its garlicky shrimp tacos and tortilla soup and blackberry margaritas. (It’s on the model of the higher-end taquerias you find a lot in the East Bay these days, like Tacubaya or Cactus Taquería.)

The question is: Do you go to Azul for a fancier taco in pretty surroundings or stick with the tried-and-true basics? Well, it depends. If you find yourself in Midtown craving empanadas and a hibiscus margarita, Azul’s your place. If you’ve got a five-spot and a powerful burrito-oriented hunger, however, you might be better served elsewhere.

That said, there are some good and fairly reasonable eats to be had at Azul, which is not meant to be a bargain-basement operation, though it is decidedly casual, with counter service and a seat-yourself setup. For a recent lunch, my friend and I started out with those empanadas: little half-moons of tender masa pastry, fried just crisp on the outside and filled with carnitas or a combination of chile rajas and cheese. We asked to try some of each and ended up with two carnitas, one of each—a pity, as I much preferred the rajas version to the carnitas, which weren’t as flavorful as one might have hoped. The rajas had a little more zip and plenty of gooey cheese. The plate came garnished simply with a mound of really excellent guacamole—fresh and chunky.

I ended up dunking a lot of the chips we got in that guacamole, and the chips couldn’t quite stand up to the challenge. There’s a chips and salsa bar in the back (a little bit out of sight, thanks to the restaurant’s layout), with a jade green avocado salsa, pallid pico de gallo and a couple of smooth red and green salsas in different heat levels—a respectable selection, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The empanadas were the most interesting choice among the appetizers; others included mini tostadas with pasilla chile sauce, sopes, nachos and taquitos. There are a few main-dish-style salads, as well; some big burritos; and simple tacos, in addition to plates with different enchiladas and main courses, plus some seafood dishes.

My friend chose the enchiladas verdes with chicken and a tomatillo sauce, plus rice and beans. They were solid but not inspired; the rice and beans came out of the kitchen tepid, though the flavors of the smooth refried beans were nice and deep, and the enchiladas themselves tasted fine but a little bland, without much flavor to the sauce.

I tried one mahi-mahi taco and one of the garlicky shrimp tacos; the server was happy to split the plate. (The menu lists them as plates of two tacos, but they’re the same price, so I asked for half-and-half.) Both of the tacos were plump with tangy shreds of cabbage over the top and lots of vegetables in addition to the seafood. I loved the mahi-mahi taco, which had some really well-spiced, moist cubes of the mild white fish. The shrimp taco, unfortunately, was overwhelmed by the pungency of sautéed garlic, which sounded good but masked the sweet shrimp flavor.

On another visit, I tried a bowl of spicy, puréed-tomato-based tortilla soup with cubes of soft white cheese, strips of crunchy tortillas and earthy shreds of almost black dried chilies—a warming bowl that would have been great on a cold night. I think Azul’s true destiny, though, will be as a summer hangout, thanks to those drinks and snackable combos like nachos and big salads (we also tried a steak salad, which was a little overdressed and slightly sweet, but the meat had a nice marinated tang). We sampled a yummy quesadilla, filled with chunks of grilled chicken, threads of poblano chilies and some golden caramelized onions that added flavor and depth—a winner.

There’s a big range of specialty tequilas, and while I haven’t done tequila shots since an unfortunate sojourn in Tijuana 15 years ago, it was an impressive wall. More my speed were the margaritas—fresh-juiced and shaken and served in chunky blue-rimmed glasses. The Jamaica was strong and prettily magenta with a subtle, flowery tartness. Sangria was a bit sweet for me, but still quaffable.

A few desserts round out the menu, and if you run with a hungry crowd or a kid, you’ll be pleased with the churros, which are, if not stellar, pleasingly sweet and crunchy and stuck into a great big scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. Azul may be a little pricier and fancier than your average taqueria, but it still knows how to send you home happy—especially if you’ve had a couple of those margaritas.