When I redid my restaurant/meal review listings as separate pages I noted in the “introduction” to the Minnesota page that the Twin Cities and environs have a surprisingly robust Mexican food scene and that I should really review more of it. Accordingly, here is a review of Maya Cuisine in Northeast Minneapolis, in the long “ethnic” corridor of Central Avenue. It opened just over three years ago and has since received quite a bit of acclaim in the mainstream Twin Cities food world. Another way of saying this might be to note that in all our visits (always on weekend mornings) we’ve found the clientele to skew far more non-Mexican/Hispanic than at our usual ports of call for Mexican food. But this is not to say that the food is watered down or Americanized—far from it; but the menu is, nonetheless, not quite as hardcore as some of those other places (more on this below).
Speaking of our usual ports of call, as Lake Street, and the Chicago/Lake outpost of Los Ocampo in particular, has been the locus of our Mexican food eating in the Cities for a long time now, it took us a while to make it out to Maya. But it is located very conveniently for our Korean and Indian food shopping on Central: directly opposite one of my favourite Indian groceries, Little India, where I buy mutton/goat (and a few blocks away from Holy Land, another source of mutton and also of lamb shanks, feta and grapeseed oil, among other things) and a couple of miles away from Pooja Groceries and Dong Yang. And so we’ve taken to grabbing a quick bite there on weekend mornings before getting our home-cooking staples. And we’ve generally been quite happy with the food, though we like some things there far more than others. Before I get to that though, a little bit on demographics.
Minnesota is very far from being the most diverse state in the US, with more than 85% of the population in the 2011 census identifying as white (non-Hispanic). African Americans, Hispanics and Asians (as a a whole) are the three largest minority groups (in that order) and their numbers are similar, from just above 5% to just above 4% of the total population of the state. That doesn’t seem like much when you consider that the state’s population is just over 5 million. However, what’s noteworthy is that the Hispanic population has grown by 74% in the ten years since the last census—the largest growth of any racial category in the state (and people of Mexican origin account for 72% of the total number). And all indications are that this number will continue to grow. It’s very interesting to watch the cultural profile of a region change ever so gradually, in front of your eyes (I’ve previously documented some tensions in our small town on this front) and I’ll be very interested to see how things look in another ten years.
Right now the annual personal income of Hispanics in the state is not very high ($19,000 compared to $33,000 for non-Hispanic whites)—which is the likely explanation for the fact that the vast majority of Mexican and other Hispanic restaurants in the region are of a casual, affordable nature. Many of these cheaper restaurants, however, have customers who are predominantly in-group and so at the low-end it’s very easy to find places that do not make too many, if any concessions, to mainstream American palates. At a place like Maya Cuisine which, as I noted, seems to have a higher non-Hispanic customer base than a place like Los Ocampo, the concession or acknowledgment of the customer base seems to be to dial back the funky meats: lengua (tongue) is the sole item that might give a hesitant customer pause; there’s no tripe nor the chicharron prensado or verde that you can get at Los Ocampo, no goat anywhere on the menu, and not very many different preparations on any given day of any meat; and, on the whole, the menu is more compact. The good news is that they do most of what they do very well.
It’s a pretty casual setup: you walk down the front of the counter indicating all the things you want (and you can see what they look like—though you’re more likely to be told there that something is the mild pork rather than that it’s the cochinita pibil), and your order is assembled and arrives with you at the cashier at the end. You select your drink (they have horchata and a revolving selection of juices), pay and take the food to your table (there’s a more formal sit-down area in the interior, but we’ve not ventured there). There’s a bar with a selection of salsas and toppings that you should investigate: the salsas are identified both by contents and heat level. In general, the staff is very fluent in English (which may also recommend the restaurant to some over others). And for those who’ve bemoaned their styrofoam plates in the past, they have real plates and silverware now.
We’ve eaten a large fraction of their menu at this point and here are my recommendations. Tacos are fine in general but the only toppings that rise above the average in my view are their al pastor (noticeably pineappley) and their chorizo with potatoes. Their pozole is fine too, if devoid of tendon, skin and bone, but comes out entirely bland—you have to season it appropriately yourself at the salsa bar (the lack of funky interest in their pozole has kept me from trying their menudo). Their sope and huarache tend toward the thick tortilla rather than the masa cake end of the spectrum and are nothing to get excited about—their sope can only be gotten with cheese and beans, by the way; huaraches can be topped with meat of your choice. Where they really shine is in the tamal department: the masa in their tamales has really lovely soft texture and they offer an interesting range of fillings, from the more familiar meats (spicy or otherwise) to rajas con queso (roasted poblanos and cheese) to pineapple and coconut.
Here too, however, there is some variability: the tamales are made fresh in the kitchen and then stacked up at the service counter. If you get one that’s pretty fresh it will be excellent; but if you should get one that’s been sitting for a while it might be more humdrum—so ask which ones have just been made (and don’t restrict yourself to what’s already out there—they will usually make you one that’s on the menu if it isn’t already prepared). Similarly, a number of reviews tout the fact that the tortillas etc. are made fresh on order but in practice we’ve not found this to always be true. The first sope I ordered there was pulled out, pre-made from a container and reheated/finished on the griddle (it was still pretty good). Oh yes, everything is very reasonably priced: we order a lot of food and strain to cross $30 on the check.
For pictures with detailed captions please check out the slideshow below (these pictures were not all taken at the same meal).
It’s a very solid place, though if you eat at a lot of restaurants in this genre you might find some of the recent fuss around it a little disproportionate. But that’s not a reason to not eat there and I look forward to going back again in a few weeks for some more tamales (if anyone has eaten their menudo or tortas, please write in below and let me know if they’re worth checking out). I do also need to write up Los Ocampo and other local luminaries. Soon!