Tenth and Spruce might sit squarely in the rainbow district, but the May premiere of aquamarine cantina Azul has officially made it the bluest corner in town.
Boho babes and men in mandals sip tequila tonics on the shady sidewalk covered by indigo awnings identical to Kanella's across the street. Through the flung-open windows, you can catch glimpses of the Booberry dining room dotted with Mexican bric-a-brac and the granite bar, its minty glow a beacon for thirsty passerby.
Owner George Markakis has created a hip agave grotto in the Gayborhood, and the joint jumps like Mexican beans. Diners line the buttercream banquette beneath pressed tin lanterns and a painted ventilation duct that courses across the ceiling like a huge blue earthworm. The bar is packed elbow to spray-tanned elbow. On the staggered glass shelves, squat fishbowls of tawny anejo abut crystal blancos in flamingo-necked vases, bar manager Matt McHale's 57-strong agave armada.
Fresh-squeezed citrus lends their salt-rimmed margarita ($4 at happy hour!) a bright punch that clears the way for the tequila's warm hum. Bartenders turn out eight 'rita twists, like the Tijuana Taxi, a canary-yellow confection sweetened with mango and vanilla bean, and the Cinnful, whose unfortunate name belies a real ass-kicker. A chili-salt rim job makes a lip-stinging invitation to this perfectly balanced elixir of cinnamon-infused tequila, bitter Campari, sweet agave nectar and tart blood orange juice.
"Smashed fruit" mojitos and mentas (mojitos with tequila instead of rum) get plenty of play as well. Azul lets drinkers design their own by choosing the herb (mint, basil or cilantro) and fruit (watermelon, strawberries, blackberries, pineapple or mango). Bartenders don't skimp on fresh ingredients; the jewel-toned drinks look like radioactive swampwater, and are all the better for it.
Black-clad servers zip around the room, eager as golden retrievers to please. One waiter, rocking a mohawk-in-progress, looks like the love child of Brad Lidge and Stella from Project Runway. Dude's just as clutch; when a scrambled order produces a strawberry-cilantro mojito instead of a watermelon one, Brad brings both, mistake on the house. Save.
If there's one thing Azul is good at, it's getting people liquored up. This truth is fortunate, since the food will make you as blue as the restaurant itself.
Jesse Vega, previously chef at GiGi (previously owned by Markakis), supplies some passable pickies, but the results are far too flawed for Azul's sit-down ambitions.
Tossed with shriveled segments of orange and grapefruit, the citrus-and-jicama salsa is an oddly dry, oddly flat bowl of tropical mulch attacked by sloppy knife work. The amateurish tostadas topped with spoonfuls of peppy chipotle goat cheese and wilted cilantro were something out of a Voorhees housewife's Cinco de Mayo party. Flank steak is badly overcooked twice. Perky salsa verde makes an attempt to moisturize the meat in some tacos, while the beef tucked between soft square buns in the torta sliders taste like lumps of charcoal. Like a room-temperature shot of Cuervo, they do not go down easy.
I admire Vega curing his own bacon with a cocoa-and-cumin-tinged mole rub, but the crisp bits get lost in the swells of thick Cabrales sauce drowning the sweet potato enchiladas. The sweets themselves are diced and roasted, drying them out badly; they'd be better mashed.
There are some winners. Vega rocks steady with an abodo-rubbed skirt steak, perfectly grilled and paired with charred scallions and yucca fries tossed in roasted garlic mojo. Over outstanding corn-and-chili pudding, five smallish pan-seared scallops line up alongside grilled hearts of chayote, the supple Aztec squash. Snack-wise, the guacamole with habanero, mango and coconut cream works, as well as the Tecate-braised chicken flautas kissed with honeyed cilantro crema.
For dessert there's a nice chewy brownie with candied almonds and tangy blood orange sorbet, but also bombs like the starch-wrapped-in-starch rice pudding flautas and the mealy, undercooked caramel-lime flan.
The food is unfortunate since Azul is pretty awesome on all other fronts. That they're nearly always busy, especially while neighbor Kanella (which serves excellent food) is usually quiet, is a testament to the power of sweet, sweet alcohol. Drink up kids, but leave your appetite at home.
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