The northwest corner of Vickers and Academy has been home to many different restaurants. For years it was the northern outpost of the Olive Branch, then it was home to a short-lived, vaguely Caribbean restaurant, and now it's the site of Aurelio's Mexican restaurant.
There's so much mediocre Mexican food available in Colorado Springs (and especially along Academy Boulevard., that wind tunnel of chain restaurants), that one almost forgets how good it can be. A visit to Aurelio's will remind you of what you may have been missing.
Start, as you must, with chips and salsa. The tortilla chips are crisp, fresh and nongreasy. The salsa will sneak up on you. Cilantro, chilies, onions and tomatoes fuse into a slightly smoky heat. The flavors will warm your taste buds without causing pain. Fresh ingredients, perfectly blended.
And that's the simple secret to Aurelio's. They've taken the time to do things right. The chicken mole we tried, for example, had the richness that moles get only with slow cooking. Cinnamon, Mexican chocolate and ancho chilies need to spend some quality time with each other to become a good mole sauce. All that the dish needed was an additional tortilla to mop up the sauce with --even in a casual place, licking one's plate is frowned upon.
The simple ground beef taco, the easiest dish a restaurant can shortcut its way to, had delightfully flavorful meat in it, both spicy and sweet, and was topped with two cheeses. Enchiladas are gracefully topped with (rather than drowned in) cheese and sauce. Chile rellenos are filled with authentic Mexican cheese, fresh and crumbly. The dishes we sampled suggested all the flavors of Veracruz and Oaxaca -- cloves, limes, coriander and Mexican chocolate.
But don't limit yourself to simple tacos. Aurelio's ambitious menu offers far more interesting and tasty choices. Though they open at 11 a.m., breakfast options abound, from Huevos Rancheros to Huevos con Chorizo, Guadalajara Omelette -- garnished with jalapeo peppers, sour cream and guacamole -- to cinnamon-topped pancakes (no menudo on the menu, however).
There are some lunch specials, all modestly priced at $4.95. These dishes are a little smaller than other entrees but still quite filling. Some are mini-combo plates like a taco or tostada with an enchilada (beef, chicken or cheese). Others are more interesting, like the empalmadas -- soft corn tortillas stuffed with beans, cheese and chicken or beef, and topped with lettuce, tomato, guacamole and sour cream. While I'd eat an asphalt shingle if it were topped with guacamole and sour cream, these empalmadas are terrific even without the topping.
If your appetite is bigger, consider a larger combination plate, one of the house specialties or the unfortunately named Macho Burrito. This latter dish weighs in at $7.25 and who knows how many ounces. It's huge. And wonderful. Stuffed with refried beans, rice, choice of meat (chicken, beef or picodillo, shredded spicy pork), this soft tortilla is then topped with tomato, sour cream, guacamole, melted cheese, burrito sauce and chopped green onions. If you can only eat once this weekend, get a Macho Burrito.
True to their Southwestern Mexico roots, the Soltero-Rodriguez family has put some fabulous fish dishes on their menu. Shrimp is prominent in dishes like Burrito a la Veracruz, Camarones a la Diabla (shrimp in a devilish tomato sauce) and Camarones Vallarta (shrimp wrapped in bacon and grilled with onions, mushrooms and green peppers. Shrimp pair up with crab in Chile Relleno a la Jarocha and the Chimichanga Marina. Best of all the fish offerings, however, is the Pescado Huacinango, grilled red snapper.
Feeling like fajitas? You'll have to choose between the traditional sizzling platter with steak, chicken or shrimp, or the Fajitas Verde which marinates the same choices in a tomatillo cilantro sauce. There is even a vegetarian fajita in which carrots and broccoli are combined with the usual vegetables.
Vegetarians will also delight in the veggie burrito, stuffed with onions, peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots and rice, and served with black beans.
Service was friendly and efficient, with a murmur of Spanish in the background blending with the piped-in music. A few Mexican serapes decorating the wall struggle to blend with the floral wallpaper that dates back to the Olive Branch. A cozy fireplace remains in the far corner. The owners have put their efforts into the menu rather than the dcor, which is fine by me.
No item on the menu costs more than $11.95; a great meal can be had for less unless you veer off to Margaritaville where a 22 oz. Grande goes for $5.75 and a smaller drink made with better liquors costs $6.25. Save your money and your taste buds for the food. You'll need a clear head anyway to make some difficult decisions.