We don't need any more bad news. But a friend of mine, who obsesses over things such as the Mayan calendar, called one day to tell me to start living it up because the world is supposedly coming to an end on Sunday, December 23, 2012. If I didn't believe him, he said, I could look at any number of Web sites that would confirm his findings: On that day, the Mayan calendar ends, and the apocalypse begins.
"So you might as well start partying like its 1999," he said. "Or 2009. In fact, I strongly suggest you start drinking again. You only have 45 months left to live; you might as well go out on a high note."
Because I'm always looking for a good excuse not to exercise or fix things around my house, I'm ready to buy into the theory. I'll pass on the margaritas, though, just in case.
However, my friends Truman and Carol Ann have already jumped onto the "Life's too short to suffer until 2012" bandwagon. They were ready to party the minute we walked into Raytown's tiny Fiesta Azteca cantina.
"I need a margarita, baby," Truman announced to our server as soon as we squeezed into a booth in the pumpkin-colored dining room. "Something good and strong. Throw a little of that Patrón tequila in it."
It wasn't quite noon.
Our ebullient server, Andres Orozco, turned out to be the owner of this six-year-old restaurant and shook his head at Truman's extravagance. "You don't need to spend that kind of money," he told us. "Our house margaritas are the best."
Orozco is a man of his word. When he says he's bringing out something in "30 seconds or less" — one of his favorite sayings, I discovered — he means it. And Truman and Carol Ann, who are cocktail connoisseurs, verified that the Fiesta Azteca margaritas are among the best. Orozco concocts his beverage the old-fashioned way: ice, lime juice, Triple Sec, tequila — none of that cloying, sugary sweet-and-sour "mix" that comes out of a bottle. "This is the finest margarita in town," Truman said of the peridot elixir.
It was a good omen for the rest of the meal, which didn't go quite the way I had planned. I had invited Carol Ann and Truman because they love Mexican food and they're adventurous eaters — no combo platters for these two. But minutes after the fresh, chunky, fantastic guacamole arrived, Orozco stopped by the table, collected our menus and announced, "I'll order your lunch for you."
Truman thought it was a fabulous idea, but I squirmed. The restaurant owner's grand gesture of choosing my meal is a culinary conceit that I usually won't accept. What if I'm presented with a dish I don't like? It has happened, and there's nothing to do but be gracious, nibble a little bit here and there, pay for the indulgence and go home hungry. That's why I always insist on ordering for myself.
"Live it up," Truman said as he swiped a corn chip into the bowl of chopped avocado, onion, tomato and fresh cilantro. "People always order the same things at Mexican restaurants. Let's be surprised for a change."
I'm not big on surprises when it comes to dining. But as they say in Jalisco, Orozco's hometown: Vive para arriba. Or something like that.
While my companions sipped their margaritas and discussed French novelists, I took in the decorative overload of the dining room. It's a small room, with maybe 14 tables — and enough Mexican flags, streamers, banners, beer novelties, sombreros and serapes to fill a soccer stadium. All that doesn't include the hundreds of photographs, of Fiesta Azteca customers, taped together in long ribbons hanging from various surfaces.
It would be fair to call the restaurant a joint, although Orozco keeps it as clean and neat as a parish hall with religious candles burning in the back. The ambience, even at lunch, is definitely festive.
I was relieved when Andres arrived with the lunch plates and presented me with an elegant platter of grilled beef tips scattered over a pile of hot grilled peppers, onions, mushrooms and slivers of cactus, all in a sexy chipotle cream sauce. It was a gorgeous dish and satisfying in every way — but not cheap, I discovered when the bill arrived. Truman, meanwhile, couldn't stop raving over his sautéed pork medallions in a delicately seasoned poblano cream sauce. For once, he wasn't exaggerating; the slices of pork tenderloin, fork tender but crispy on the outside, were extraordinary. "It's as good as anything you'd find at Michael Smith," Truman proclaimed. "Maybe better!"
Carol Ann was equally enthralled with the Santa Fe chicken, a juicy pollo breast ladled with a light cilantro-garlic sauce and a layer of melted, bubbling cheese. "It's fantastico!" she told Orozco. "As fine as anything I've eaten in Mexico."
Truman and Carol Ann, two of my fussiest friends, gave Orozco's modest cantina a resounding thumbs up, so I insisted on taking two other picky pals, Bob and Jennifer, to the restaurant for dinner. They were both intrigued by the $25 giant burrito listed on the menu. "Do people really order that?" Bob asked.
"Yes," Orozco confessed, "but no one can finish it. It's very big. It could feed 30!"
Bob isn't so adventurous when it comes to Mexican cuisine. He knows what he likes and isn't eager to experiment. Orozco raised his eyebrows when Bob refused the offer to order for him. "I want a bean burrito and two tacos," Bob said.
Orozco's theory is that even though he sells the traditional Tex-Mex tacos, burritos and chimichangas, that's not enough reason to drive out to his cantina. "You get perfectly good tacos anywhere," he later told me. "You can make them at home!"
Jennifer also chose a more traditional combination plate: the No. 2, a chile relleno and a tamale. Sensing Orozco's disappointment, I let him order for me. Bob seemed shocked by this rash decision, but I wasn't worried. Jennifer seemed happy with her doughy tamale and puffy relleno, while Bob was perfectly content with his fat burrito covered in molten cheese. My gamble, though, paid off handsomely when Orozco brought out a plate of sautéed pink shrimp, again in a not-too-fiery chipotle cream sauce, with mushrooms, chopped tomatoes and translucent ribbons of onion. Again, it wasn't cheap but it was so luscious, it was well worth every peso.
Bob and Jennifer couldn't finish their meals, but both wanted dessert. Jennifer ordered the dense, delicious wedge of homemade flan, drenched in caramel sauce and whipped cream.
"We don't make the cheesecake here," Orozco warned, "because not too many people order it. Our customers want real Mexican food." Bob asked for it anyway.
Who could blame him? If the Mayans are correct, life is too short for ordering anything other than what you want, even if it's not the real thing.
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