Cocina Azúl Cantina offers basic Mexican fare

The chile con queso ($8.95) at Cocina Azúl Cantina is served in a fried tortilla. It includes peppers, tomatoes, onions and spices. (Jason K. Watkins/For The Journal)

Blue is one of the most popular colors in the world, and one of the few things that connect all people throughout time is food.

Cocina Azúl, therefore, should be a restaurant with universal appeal.

Cocina Azúl Cantina, recently opened on Holly NE, and is a casual, no-frills New Mexican eatery with fair prices and sopaipillas to die for.

At first glance, the interior of the restaurant is so nondescript the place could serve any genre of food.

The exterior is just as nice and inviting.

Service is noticeably attentive and friendly, and diners typically don’t seem to have to wait long to get a seat or get served.

On a recent visit, I was the only diner. That’s typically not a stellar sign, but I like to visit restaurants during the worst possible times – their rush hours and their deadest hours – to get a sense of their capabilities.

In the case of Cocina Azúl Cantina, it made for a quick and efficient dining experience, which if nothing else bodes well for business diners during lunch hour.

The food is good, but it’s casual and simple. You won’t find anything like made-from-scratch tortillas or fancy fresh catches. Instead, Cocina serves staples like beef and chicken tacos, cheese enchiladas, and shredded beef burritos.

The chile con queso ($8.95) is massive and would easily feed three or four people as a great appetizer. The queso comes in a big fried tortilla and has a great flavor. The menu said it came with five cheeses mixed with peppers, tomatoes, onions and spices, but I tasted two or three cheeses at most, predominantly cheddar.

It had a great flavor, and the thick tortilla chips were a nice pairing – and certainly filling. The queso was my favorite part of the meal, until the sopaipilla came, and I would definitely order it again.

The beef taco plate, or “tacos de la casa” ($11.95), comes with three overstuffed tacos in either crispy corn, blue corn or soft flour tortillas, filled with a pasty ground beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato, with pico de gallo, homemade salsa, two side items and a fresh, warm sopaipilla.

The beef had a great flavor, but the consistency was maybe too finely ground. (A good but more time-consuming work-around would be smaller batches of taco meat.) The recipe, though, is a good one.

For sides, I opted for the refried beans and Mexican rice.

The beans were good, thick and fresh and had a nice flavor, but the rice seemed light, almost like traditional steamed rice. Mexican rice or Spanish rice is usually fried and then simmered in tomato sauce or something similar, but Cocina Azúl Cantina’s rice seemed to be lightly seasoned white rice.

In an otherwise tasty dish, the rice was the one shortfall. Luckily, the pleasantly hot salsa made up for the blandness. A couple of spoonfuls, and the rice perked up.

The salsa was fantastic, by the way, and packed a welcome punch you don’t find everywhere. (The really good Mexican restaurants sometimes serve hot salsa by request, but many offer bland or barely spicy salsa in consideration of the palates of their tourist diners.)

I opted for the flour tortillas, at the suggestion of my waitress, but I should have tried the blue corn or crispy shells. These were too thick, too stiff, and not fresh enough to make much of an impression. Homemade tortillas aren’t easy, of course, but they’d go a long way to draw in genuine foodies.

The best part of the meal, probably, was the fresh sopaipilla, hot out of the fryer and served with real honey. One of the best in town, Cocina Azúl’s is small but incredibly fresh and richly flavored.

I think it’s safe to say that there is a special place in heaven for Mexican restaurants that still serve fresh sopaipillas after the meal.

There are two other locations in Albuquerque – one at 4243 Montgomery NE and the original at 1134 Mountain NW.

Burgers are also a featured menu item, and an unspoken but near-universal rule of Mexican restaurants is that they all quietly serve fantastic hamburgers.

I’ll have to go back to soon and try a burger to make sure that rule still holds true.

Got a restaurant tip or a new eatery you’d like to see featured? Contact Arts Editor Adrian Gomez at agomez@abqjournal.com or me at jasonkwatkins@gmail.com.

2 1/2 stars

LOCATION: 5916 Holly NE, 831-2600, cocinaazul.com

HOURS: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

FULL BAR

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