It sort of goes without saying that when circumstances in our lives change, we become different people. Hey, I'm certainly much happier and less frazzled now that I don't have to take my clothes to a laundromat or ride the bus every day. Sometimes taking a step up the ladder to success — even a tiny step — can be a positive thing.
That's why I can't blame restaurateur Andres Orozco for moving his charming little Raytown cantina, Fiesta Azteca, to a bigger, more ambitious location in Lee's Summit. A distinct personality change has accompanied the move. The old Fiesta Azteca was, to put it mildly, eccentric. Soaring over a scant 14 tables were enough Mexican flags, streamers, banners, beer novelties, sombreros and serapes to festoon a soccer stadium. When walking into the place, you couldn't be sure if the place was a restaurant or a party-supply shop.
The original Fiesta Azteca also put the accent squarely on the fiesta. Orozco's restaurant was always a party, if only because the small building could barely contain the owner's ebullient, larger-than-life personality. The Jalisco-born Orozco liked to greet customers at every table and usually charmed patrons into letting him order for them. "Tacos? Anyone can make tacos," I once heard him chide. "You don't want tacos. You want my shrimp alteno."
It takes a brazen person to talk a customer — someone who wants just a basic, crunchy taco — into ordering a plate of sauteed shrimp and cactus in salsa verde. Orozco is brazen and then some, with the seductive vitality of a first-rate car salesman. Sure, you think you want a used, modestly priced Chevy Cavalier, but you deserve a shiny new Mustang. And so you succumb.
I was in the old joint one night with a friend who orders only bean-and-beef burritos. That's his favorite Tex-Mex dish, and he never wants to order anything else. Orozco smooth-talked my friend into a plate of steak ranchero. There were no complaints.
"Any restaurant can sell a taco or a burrito," Orozco told me later. "Taco Bell sells those things. I want my customers to try something new."
But seven years after opening Fiesta Azteca, Orozco had outgrown the space. "We had customers waiting outside for a table," he says. "There was no way to grow the business unless we moved to a bigger location."
Last December, the new, considerably larger Fiesta Azteca opened in Lee's Summit. It's an appealing dining room, with tile floors and warm colors, but it's a good deal less festive than the chaotic original. Instead of an explosion of hanging flags, banners and inflatable beer bottles, there are only a few, scattered here and there. The photographs of favored customers still partly fill one back wall, but it's less of a shrine now. And if there was a holy candle burning in a corner, as in the former location, I didn't see it.
In this calmer, more orderly space, however, the food remains alluringly good. The menu remains a hodgepodge of cultures and tastes — alongside the Mexican-inspired dishes are a fried-chicken salad, a barbecue chicken wrap and a variation on the surf-and-turf concept — but that's part of this cantina's oddball charm, and it plays fine in Lee's Summit.
I prefer the decadently rich creations that Orozco introduced me to the first time around: grilled chicken and shrimp draped in a silky poblano cream sauce, succulent pork carnitas that arrive slightly crispy on the exterior and gorgeously moist and meaty inside. That dazzling, jade-green salsa verde ladled over diced pork and onions.
Orozco is still in attendance, but his servers act as apostles, describing the daily specials in hushed tones. The night I dined at the restaurant with my friend Carol Ann, she was swayed by our waiter's soliloquy on the night's dinner special: pork chops in a spicy — but not too fiery — chipotle cream sauce. Carol's eyes glazed over, as if she were waiting for the Tex-Mex rapture. The dish really is transporting: two moist, fork-tender pork chops blanketed in a shiny glaze of smoked chipotle peppers that have been sautéed with mushrooms, onions and green peppers and finished off with a little butter and cream. The provocative sauce tickles the tongue rather than scorching it. I loved it almost as much as my own dinner: a plump chicken breast and a few grilled shrimp peeking from under a translucent sheen of cream, fresh lime juice and a splash of tequila.
I wasn't sure if I would be able to finish my chicken and shrimp, having done some collateral damage on my appetite prior to the dinner's arrival by nearly polishing off a bowl of incredibly fresh, cilantro-rich guacamole with warm corn chips. What was I thinking? (If only the bland, runny queso had been as enticing.)
In Raytown, Fiesta Azteca's tables were shoved so close together, you couldn't resist listening to the conversations of nearby patrons. (My favorite eavesdropping moment was the woman who insisted to her husband that she had attended school with a girl named after a popular avocado concoction: "No, it wasn't Juanita, damn it, it was Guacamole!")
In Lee's Summit, diners have more elbow room. That's probably a good thing, but it diminishes the fiesta-like ambience of the original restaurant, a place that got noisier and more raucous as the evening progressed. Anywhere he is, though, Orozco serves one of the more potent margaritas in the metro, which always helps.
So, yeah, the new Fiesta Azteca trades flamboyance for something closer to grandness, and it's way less rowdy. But Orozco says it's really the same place. And if the personality of the restaurant isn't as lovable as it was in its previous life, it's still a success story. And the food still rocks.