"Never mind the dog, beware of owner."
That's one of the quippy signs doling out wisdom all over Antonio's Nut House in Palo Alto. This wacky dive bar is most notable for how out of place if feels along California Avenue alongside salons and trendy restaurants. Here, you'll find peanut shells littering the floor, a giant gorilla in a cage (also where you'll find the bowl of free peanuts) and chalk graffiti covering the walls. Also inside the Nut House, you'll find a small eatery called Taqueria Azteca.
The advantage of this setup is that you can have your Bud Light and chicken taco all in the same place. Sit down at one of the taqueria's ripped, faux red leather booths, or take your food over to the foosball or pool table in the back of the bar. There, you'll also find two arcade games and air hockey. Want to watch the game? There are TV screens tuned to ESPN all over, with four in the taqueria section alone.
The disadvantage of the arrangement is that Taqueria Azteca has two speeds: bad and not very good. Weekday lunch seems to be the better time to visit, when the food tastes most fresh. That's when a steady stream of people who work nearby stop by for a burrito or grilled cheese. (Yes, this taqueria also serves American diner standards like burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches.)
A lunchtime super burrito ($8.50) with al pastor pork skimped on the "super" elements. There was barely a smear of sour cream, not many pinto beans, very little pico de gallo and slightly more guacamole. The guacamole was fine, though it's hard to match the taste of guacamole that's made-to-order. This one is chunky with onions, tomatoes and cilantro. The burrito consisted mainly of orangey rice and many small cubes of pork, which were described as being spicy but just tasted salty and chewy.
During a Sunday dinner visit, the rice that was soft during the day became dry. The same was true of the meat. The carnitas had edges so dry they had turned sharp. Fernando Miranda, whose parents Jose and Maria Miranda own Taqueria Azteca, explained that cooking the carnitas crunchy is his family's style and diners need to specify if they want them soft. I don't buy that. I've had carnitas elsewhere with delicious crisped edges that didn't scratch my throat. These ones simply tasted overcooked.
Of all the meats, chicken is your best option. It's moist and flavorful, at least when doused in salsa, as on the tacos ($2.75). The soft tacos come with a nice scattering of crunchy onions and cilantro as well as a wedge of lime.
On an uninteresting tostada ($9.25), diced chicken in a tomato-based sauce arrived under lots of romaine lettuce and salsa on top of a crispy shell. There was shredded Parmesan cheese on top, a choice more odd than bad. According to Miranda, it's supposed to add some saltiness, but it didn't end up contributing much of anything.
Out of everything we tried, the nachos ($8.50) were the table favorite. The chips are thick-cut, fresh and fried in-house. The typical toppings of melted cheese, refried beans, sour cream, guacamole and tomatoes are on the skimpy side but there's a sizeable scattering of jalapeños.
Unfortunately, the steak on top was cooked to the point of shoe leather. Miranda insists everything is made to-order and meats aren't cooked in advance, though he did say it's possible that some cooks do a better job than others.
Complimentary chips come with all orders along with some watery house salsa. Ask for a side of the red or green tomatillo salsas. These zingy green and fiery red salsas would hold their own at any salsa bar and might just be the best items on the menu.
In the evening, it appears that most people go to Taqueria Azteca because they're buzzed and need sustenance. If that's the case, you can't go wrong with a quesadilla ($4.95). It's pretty hard to screw up melted cheese on a griddled tortilla. For $1 extra, get sour cream and guacamole on the side.
At night, the Nut House swells with Stanford University students and young professionals. They come for the beer and the atmosphere, but when it's closing time, Taqueria Azteca does fulfill a need.
321 California Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Monday to Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Wednesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: street and nearby lots
Outdoor seating: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: variable
Bathroom cleanliness: good