Last call for Azteca on Wednesday

Burrito joint's owners vow to reopen, but not sure where

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— A popular downtown burrito and taco restaurant will go dark Wednesday, but the owners vow to reopen in a new location. They just aren't certain where.

John Bitume, who owns Azteca Taqueria with Jim Ruggerio and Jonas Gabriel, said the restaurant at 402 Lincoln Ave. will stop serving customers at 9 p.m. Wednesday and remain closed until it can find a new location. He said he's in negotiations for a downtown Steamboat space.

"We're not going out of business," Bitume said. "We will resurface."

Azteca has been a fixture in downtown Steamboat for seven years, and the restaurant has built a clientele that is a cross-section of the community -- eighth-graders with skateboards line up with Realtors for big burritos filled with meats, veggies and salsas. Bitume and his partners knew well in advance they would lose their lease Oct. 31 because a new owner plans to move his Western furniture store into the building. They thought they had a new location, but the deal fell apart. Since the beginning of September, Bitume has looked unsuccessfully for an alternate location.

There are vacant storefronts in downtown Steamboat, but some landlords say they don't want to convert to a restaurant, Bitume said.

Azteca was doing good business at mid-afternoon Friday. One of its customers, Steve Phares, said he eats at the restaurant about twice a month.

"I'd like to see them find a new home," he said between bites. "But I also understand that in a growing community, not every business can find a good deal."

Chris Allen said he dines at Azteca several times a week and will miss it during its unplanned downtime. In addition to being a fan of the food, he appreciates that Azteca has ample parking.

Allen acknowledged that as a Libertarian, he's conflicted about the best way for Steamboat to come to the aid of independent businesses.

"One of the problems is that most landlords in this town are greedy," Allen said. "But I also believe in property rights and an owner's right to do what he wants with his building."

Azteca has been host to burrito-snarfing political philosophers and diners from every other walk of life for most of seven years. If Bitume and his partners are successful, they -- and their loyal customer base -- could have a new hangout within one or two months.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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