In 2009, we won the “Best Mexican Restaurant in Fort Wayne” award and we’ve been winning it consistently since. [2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014]
We win this award regularly because we start all of our dishes with the best ingredients. Spending more on quality ingredients and then properly training our team of cooks, we’ve mastered Mexican food creation and delivery. When your food hits the table, you’ll find it the proper temperature and amazing, original, El Azteca Mexican recipes that are sure to tantalize your taste buds.
They had to borrow $600 for the cash drawer, it was the height of the 1973 recession, and the cooks quit on opening night. It was no way to start a new restaurant, especially a Mexican restaurant in a city that had just discovered Mexican food. Five months later, on the verge of bankruptcy and with no money to pay the next months rent, the owners were desperate. They conducted a two-week advertising campaign, Michael Ray says, “Our business doubled almost overnight.”
It still was a struggle for a couple of years, but el Azteca, 535 E. State Blvd., survived and went on to become one of Fort Wayne’s most popular Mexican Restaurant’s. Michael and Juanita Ray are the sole owners now, but they started el Azteca with her sister and brother-in-law, Paula and John Rodriguez, who have since divorced. They first went into business together in 1970. “Johnny was just back from the service, and I was going to school, driving a cab and working part time in a bar on South Calhoun Street,” Michael Ray recalls. When the owner wanted to sell the bar, the two couples pooled their resources and bought it. It was called Our Place, and they would later own a second Our Place at Marketplace of Canterbury from 1979 to 1983.
The Rays met when they both worked for Azar’s drive-in restaurant next to South Side High School on South Calhoun Street. She was a senior at Hoagland High School and he was at North Side High School. They married in 1968 and honeymooned in Chicago. While dining in a Mexican restaurant there, they talked about having a place like it someday. Juanita Ray worked at St. Joseph Medical Center for 13 years, working her way up from dietary aide to the accounting department.
“I was always moonlighting as a waitress someplace, too.” she says. Her experience in both areas came in handy when the two couples joined in their business venture. After two years at Our Place, they heard The Lighthouse restaurant on East State Blvd. was for sale and went in to look it over. “We ended up buying it on contract at the height of the ’73 recession.” Michael Ray says with a shake of his head. It’s still hard to believe the risk they took.
“I’d never do it that way again,” he says. Yet, even through their early struggles, “there was never any doubt that this is what we wanted to do.” As patrons palates have become educated to the varieties and subtleties of Mexican food, the Rays have changed and expanded their menu. “In the beginning, you had beef, cheese, beans and rice, and that was it,” Michael Ray says. “For nachos, you had peppers and cheese; now we have seven or eight different varieties. We’d buy a 5-pound container of sour cream and throw half of it away at the end of the week; now we use 100 pounds a week.”
The current menu is wide-ranging: nine varieties of enchiladas, nine kinds of regular burritos, eight chimichangas, a dozen appetizers, plus tacos, tamales, tostadas, salads, desserts, combination plates and sizzling fajitas. There’s also American fare- a list of sandwiches.
“I do most of the cooking (for the family) at home,” he says, “and I also develop the recipes at home. It’s quiet and I have the kitchen to myself.”
He says most Mexican food served in this country is Americanized. For one thing, he points out, it would be greasier in Mexico. “We use oils and Olive Oil- no lard at all. It would be all lard in Mexico. Or take our chicken mole. We make the sauce and serve it over a boneless, skinless chicken breast. In Mexico, the chicken is pre-broiled and the pieces are put whole in a pot of sauce and served.” ” People used to have the idea that all Mexican food was spicy hot,” Juanita adds, “but it’s not. You can make it as spicy as you want.”
El Azteca has built a loyal following. Some people have dined regularly since the beginning. Even people who move away don’t forget. “Not long ago, a fellow stopped in for the ingredients for two burritos. He was flying to Florida to visit some former Fort Wayne residents and taking them as a surprise. And people often pick up our chips and sauce for people who’ve moved away.” Michael Ray says.