Experience Chicago's Noble Cheap Steak Tradition at El Azteca


[Photographs: Mike Gebert]

The Big Enchilada of Serious Eats Chicago, Nick Kindelsperger, recently weighed on in where to go for steak if you want to drop the big wad. His advice is all good for high end steak, in my experience, but I have to admit that when I feel that primal craving for bloody red beef, I'm as likely to go the cheap route.

Cheap steak has a noble tradition in Chicago; one of the great dishes of the early twentieth century restaurant scene was a workingman's steak called Roumanian Steak* (as in Sammy's Roumanian in New York). Roumanian steak was skirt steak, a cheaper but full-flavored cut, marinated in something on the spectrum between Italian dressing and teriyaki sauce and grilled to juicy and no further. "Roumanian" was also, at that time, a euphemism for "Jewish," and in Chicago Roumanian Steak was found all over the onetime Jewish neighborhood near Maxwell Street (okay, let's just say what everybody called it: "Jewtown"). Accompanied by Gypsy violinists and Old-Mittel-Europe decor, it was a favorite bargain date in your great-grandparents' day. (You can read more musings about it by me here.)

*Note: Yes, the country is called Romania now, but Roumanian Steak is usually spelled the archaic way, because Sammy's Roumanian is.

Roumanian steak is just about gone now, what with Myron and Phil's having closed and so on, but it has a modern-day substitute in Mexican steak, which is also skirt steak (arrachera), also often marinated with a commercial product, also grilled to juicy, and also cheap. No, you won't get subtle flavors of blue cheese and licking an iron bar, as you will with 60-day-aged ribeye, but you'll get the satisfaction of charred, salty beef to satisfy that caveman-esque desire—plus change back from a $20.


I found El Azteca when I was checking out other spots on west Fullerton like El Huarache de Maria and Somethin' Sweet Doughnuts. Which is to say, I smelled sizzling beef hanging on the cold winter air.


It's the antidote to the cold inside, riotously bright tropical decor, hearty vegetable soup, spicy housemade salsa, and (pretty sure not housemade) chips as soon as you sit down. The menu covers a lot of bases, but a whole page of steak combinations is where to start.


I ordered Bistec a la Tampiquena, which comes with a cheese enchilada, just to have a taste of the non-steak side. It was weirdly cinnamony and seemed precooked well in advance, sort of breakfast enchilada-like, so skip that. All you need is steak with a couple of cebollitas (grilled green onions), which seems to be what all these steak combinations come down to.


Eat it as is, or cut it up and stuff it in a hot tortilla with some salsa. However you do it, as long as it's hot and it's steak, it's all good. You've got Mexican TV rather than a Gypsy violinist, and it wants to transport you to Puerto Vallarta, not Ploesti, but when it comes to the basic appeal of cheap steak, the more things change, the more they stay the same.