When it comes to dining on a budget, few segments of the population do it better than college students. But Affordable Eating 101 doesnt have to mean a menu of ramen noodles and stale cereal.
Just follow the traffic from local universities to Azusas popular La Tolteca, where diners of the collegiate variety or not can choose from an array of traditional Mexican meals that are both scrumptious and wallet-friendly.
At La Tolteca, its simple to put together a meal for under $10, and you dont have to limit yourself to one item. A la carte items range from about $2 to $6, and the combo plates range from about $5 to $8.
The portions, ordered and served cafeteria-style, are generous, so consider it an investment into tomorrows leftovers lunch as well.
On my visit, I opted for variety and ordered the cheese enchilada plate (all plates include beans, rice, chips and salsa), a single pork tamale and homestyle guacamole. The total for my order, which also included a small lemonade, was a mere $8.75 without tax.
My dining companion chose the combination plate an enchilada, taco, taquito and chile verde. With all the freebie extras, this proved to be more than enough food for even the hungriest of customers.
A bottled Mexican soda to wash it all down pushed his tab to $10.25 without tax.
After sampling bites of each dish, a few favorites rose to the top right away: the beef taco, the taquito, the guacamole and the house salsa.
The taco, packed with extra meat and overflowing with lettuce and cheese, was perfectly crunchy and fresh. The taquito, also of the beef variety, was the highlight of the entire meal. Smothered in a delectable verde sauce, I left La Tolteca wishing I had ordered more.
The restaurant, like most, serves free chips and salsa. Here, you can expect the chips to be crisp and tasty and the salsa to be mild and delicious. I couldnt get enough of the salsa a side I normally dont enjoy and was glad La Tolteca provided one for each of us.
And for all the extra homemade chips still in our basket, the side of homestyle guacamole was the ideal pairing. Make sure you order the homestyle version, rather than the homogenous, blended one its worth the extra 25 cents.
The only item that didnt immediately impress was the pork tamale, which was bland and dry. Ive tasted much better from area farmers markets and street vendors, and expected more from La Tolteca.
Still, the staff was courteous and ready to answer any questions I had about the menu. And it took only a few minutes from the time I placed my order to the time it arrived, ready for consumption, at my table. Fast food isnt even this fast.
As with many authentic dining establishments, La Tolteca exists to serve its customers the best Mexican food around, not to amaze them with its decor. So dont be turned away by the run-down building, graffitied bathrooms or dusty floors, and take comfort in the A-grade health rating posted in the doorway. The dining room may be outdated, but the fare is as fresh as can be.
So grab some extra tortillas handmade on the premises and sop up some Mexican comfort food, La Tolteca style.
La Tolteca is located at 321 N. Azusa Ave. in Azusa. For more information, call (626) 334-0302.
Written by Evelyn Barge