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"Besides," our hostess added, "the columns are made of plexiglass, not stone. Even if they did fall, they wouldn't hurt."
Famous last words. I've witnessed some decor-related accidents in restaurants. The most memorable was when a three-pound gaff (a hand-held hook used for lifting heavy fish) split a woman's skull in The Fishermen's, a seafood shack on the Newport Beach Pier in California. The gaff had been placed on a ledge to add authenticity to the place (as if the immigrant fishermen spearing mackerel just outside the window weren't picturesque enough) and was knocked loose during a brief tremor that barely registered on the Richter scale. I doubt the customer enjoyed her Dungeness crabs that evening, and I could just imagine how distracting a stone column, faux or no, would be if it took a tumble during our meal.
Actually we weren't too worried. Designer Patrick Danan no doubt constructed the bizarre theme-restaurant with building and safety codes in mind. So we didn't have much to fear from the decor. We had plenty to cringe over when it came to the food, however.
I should make this clear: I have absolutely nothing against chain restaurants. They serve their purpose, and some -- P.F. Chang's, Cracker Barrel, Chart House, even Roadhouse Grill -- do quite well, serving palatable grub appropriate to the surroundings. What I can't understand is why anyone would come up with a theme as striking as Aztec World Cafe's and not follow through with the fare.
As the hostess was seating us, we made the mistake of mentioning out loud the similarities between her employer's restaurant and those that are part of the Rainforest Cafe chain. That chain's parent company, located in Minnesota, spends millions of dollars outfitting each restaurant with virtual rain forests that include life-size mechanical animals, birds, and amphibians posed in their "natural" environments. The Rainforest Cafe is a plastic Metrozoo with a "retail village" attached. And the food ain't bad, either.
The hostess appeared to be offended. "Oh, no," she said. "We're nothing like them."
Well, they should be. Rainforest Cafe not only serves fresh, edible food, but the dishes are named appropriately -- jungle chowder, Rasta pasta, and Kalahari safari potpie, for example. So even if the cuisine is more American than it is "rain forest" -- roast iguana is not on the menu, but grilled cheese is -- at least the chain throws humor and imagination into the mix. And patrons respond by visiting the restaurants in droves. I guess that's why they keep opening the damn things.
Aztec World Cafe, on the other hand, hardly makes the effort. The international fare is indifferently prepared by chef Shashank Agtey (formerly of the Grill Room at the Riverside Hotel) and ranges from bland starters like California egg rolls stuffed with dry chicken and julienne cabbage and peppers to predictable, too-sweet desserts, like marbled New York cheesecake. Why not offer something like "Olmec egg roll," a bean-and-corn-filled treat? Or "pueblo pie," a woven tapestry of fruit and pastry? How about some "sun pasta," named for the Aztecs who worshiped that big yellow disc? Imagination is nowhere to be found in Aztec World Cafe.
The only dish that could be considered whimsical was the Aztec soup, an unappealing, jellied chicken broth garnished with fried tortilla strips and a dab of sour cream. "Very spicy," our server insisted. Very not. The calabaza (pumpkin) bisque actually had more zing, thanks to a dash of sherry and a swirl of cream.
Mexican influences come into play with the quesadilla of the day, an appetizer. We enjoyed our chicken, onion, and Monterey Jack cheese quesadilla, which had been lightly grilled and garnished with fresh guacamole visibly rife with chunks of avocado. On the other hand, we had to search the snow crab, artichoke, and black bean dip for both artichokes and beans. We never did find the 'chokes, but the beans were on the bottom -- they'd apparently sunk through the too-thin liquid. The dip, served with red, green, and white tortilla chips, was pleasantly flavored with real crab, but had been heated to such a degree that the cheese was like soup.
Ripe avocado wedges and tomato slices decorated a fajita salad, which offered a fried tortilla bowl overflowing with greens. The salad had been tossed with a pleasant lemony dressing and topped with strips of grilled flank steak. As for the rest of the fare -- salads, sandwiches, pizzas, pastas, and main courses -- it was literally all over the map. What united many of the dishes was poor preparation. The grilled mahi-mahi sandwich was an overdone, juiceless fish served on a stale focaccia roll. My half-pound mushroom-cheeseburger was burnt on the outside and barely pink in the middle -- definitely not the medium-rare I'd ordered. Both sandwiches were accompanied by cold shoestring potatoes and an interesting Aztec slaw, made with zucchini and marinated in apple-cider vinegar, according to one server.