Azteca manager strives to make restaurant feel like a second home

Azteca, operated by general manager Jaime Monje, was voted Best Family Dining and Best Mexican Cuisine of Federal Way.

Look outside the windows of Federal Way’s Azteca Mexican Restaurant, and you can history in the making.

Just a few hundred feet to the southeast is the former location of the Mexican restaurant — demolished a few years ago to make room for the incoming Sound Transit light rail line through the city’s downtown.

They weren’t sure how the move from their freestanding building to the restaurant’s new home at 2020 S. 320th St. would pay off, general manager Jaime Monje said.

“But it’s been a lot better than what we thought,” he said. “The community has been so, so strong in supporting us. … We are very, very happy with the location here.”

His employees and coworkers from the previous location followed Monje to the new location, even though the restaurant was closed for about six months. They officially re-opened in January 2021.

Since then, Monje and his team have kept active in the Federal Way community too. They volunteered to make meals for 40 people in the Federal Way Police Department in Christmas 2021, and Monje said he frequently donates gift cards for local nonprofits.

“I’m a believer that if we support (others), we get the support back,” he said.

Like most restaurants, the pandemic was “a huge challenge for us,” Monje said, especially in the first three months when the Governor’s stay-at-home order kicked in. But they learned, adapted and survived, and Monje is hopeful — giving one of Azteca’s tables a heart knock-on-wood — that the worst is behind us.

Making good food isn’t about a secret recipe, Monje said, but rather “consistency.”

“That is what this company has,” he said. “They’re very consistent, and we’re very careful on every detail on the food. … It’s a big process to bring the food to your table.”

Monje, 42, was born and raised in Mexico and came to the U.S. in 1995, landing at Lake Chelan. He and his family moved to Seattle in 1999, and he got a job a few months clearing and setting tables at the Burien Azteca.

Six months later, Monje became a server and soon started bartending too. After a few more years, he was promoted to assistant manager, and in 2005 he was transferred to the Federal Way Azteca, still as an assistant manager. A couple years later, the general manager position opened up and he was the man for the job.

He now runs the store along with his wife, Beatriz, who is an assistant manager and server. Their eldest daughter is a hostess at the front of the house.

When school stopped early on in the pandemic, Monje didn’t want to see his then-13-year-old daughter doing nothing at home, so he started bringing her to the restaurant.

“And then, one day, the phone rings, and she went and picked (it) up — ‘Thank you for calling Federal Way Azteca … how can I help you?’ ” he said. “I looked at her like, ‘We never taught her how to do (that.)’ But she learned from us.”

After more than four decades in Federal Way, Azteca remains a staple of the city’s dining scene. Under Monje’s management, the restaurant was voted Best Family Dining and Best Mexican Cuisine of Federal Way in this year’s awards contest.

“My goal is that every customer who comes to our door leaves happy,” Monje said. “I want the community … to believe this is their second house when they come in here.”