WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
The corner of the world formed by the intersection of Central and South America has a unique cuisine, and Mayas explores it well. The menu's clear reference to Mexican cooking is misleading. In fact, the Mexican dishes are in the minority here, with the food of Panama, Columbia, and the Caribbean forming the better part of the menu. Dishes from Brazil and other parts of South America appear, usually as specials.
The chef has built a repertoire of dishes that's as lusty as it is unusual. Freshness is a major theme: certain dishes that are more often than not a bit droopy and heavy in restaurants here are presented in light, flavorful forms. (The nacatamal is a great example of this.) Spice components are complex and exciting. Dishes come out searingly stove-hot, sometimes to the point that the waiter needs an oven mitt to carry it. Portions are too generous; two courses ought to do it for even hungry diners. There's so much stuff here that it took me a few visits to figure out what they were about.
Mayas opened in 2007, a partnership between U.S. Army Iraq veteran Trinity Cazzola and Chef Edgar Irias. At the time, new styles of Hispanic cooking seemed to be on the verge of taking off, and that's where they went.
It's a strikingly handsome dining room in a part of Magazine Street known more for its well-worn antique charm than its elegance. But these are historic, interesting buildings with high ceilings, and Mayas makes the most of theirs, with unique Caribbean-inspired furnishings and floor coverings. The service staff is attentive and knowledgeable. One oddity: it takes forever to get a cocktail, even though the menu and advertising calls the bar a specialty.
Tamal Criollo (Cuban tamal, with roast pork and onions)/
Nacatamal (Honduras style, with pork, rice, raisins, and olives).
Coconut-battered fried shrimp.
Octopus in garlic sauce with cilantro.
Sesame-seed-crusted soft-shell crab.
Blue tomato salad.
Soups (they change daily).
Mariscada (a stew of shrimp, mussels and squid).
Paella Valenciana (same stuff as above, plus chorizo and chicken).
Pinchos (grilled skewers of chicken or beef, with tortillas and garnishes).
Vera Cruz scallops (cilantro garlic sauce).
Coconut curry shrimp.
Ropa vieja (beef brisket cooked into shreds).
Lechon roasted pork.
Bananas en Gloria (like bananas Foster).
FOR BEST RESULTS
This is a good restaurant to order one dish per two people in almost every case. Not only does the food bulk large, but the flavors are so intense that some dishes don't wear well.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
A major weakness here is the lack of much local seafood. A restaurant serving these dishes should not be dominated by scallops, salmon, and green-lipped mussels, all from far-away, cold-water seas. There are local seafoods of much better quality.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar
- Hipness +2
- Local Color +2
- Sidewalk tables
- Open Sunday lunch
- Unusually large servings
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations accepted
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Magazine Street continues to be the wellspring of new kinds of restaurants, a function it has performed since Katrina. Now it has two restaurants with a Caribbean-Latin American menu--something hard to imagine would catch on five years ago. But catch on it has. And despite the departure Mayas makes from the local cuisine, its dining room is populated by a sophisticated crowd that crosses many age groups. Restaurants like this make me think that the next era in local dining will be mostly about ethnic eats.