Think Global, Eat Local

Maya Cafe serves up pan-Latin fare with a side of whimsy

Stepping through the front door of the Maya Café in downtown Maplewood feels a bit like entering the whimsical world of the City Museum. You sense something familiar in the design. You've felt this vibe before and you liked it. But the food at Maya Café you haven't tasted before -- not even the enchiladas or the quesadillas -- especially if your only reference point is, well, fill in the name of any casual Mexican restaurant.

A huge cross, fitted with red lightbulbs, practically screams "funky" as you enter. To the left, near the bar, hangs another quirky installation, the big Fortuna, a shadow box containing a picture of two large illuminated dice and surrounded by cubbyholes filled with Mexican trinkets. Another cross, this one made of cardboard and painted black, is decoupaged with famous Time magazine covers: JFK, MLK, Indira Ghandi and, smack in the middle, the "Is God Dead?" cover.

And there's more, all from the fertile mind and eccentric collection of Bill Christman, the man whose sculptures give the City Museum its bizarro-world feel. Built in 1919 and situated across from the Saratoga Lanes (one of the few second-story bowling alleys still operating in the nation) and next door to the folk-music venue Focal Point, even Maya Café's building is a bit offbeat. By next spring things should be even more unusual, when owner Jay Schober -- surely Christman's kindred spirit when it comes to breakneck creativity -- retrofits the 30,000-pound fishing boat he bought in Michigan as the restaurant's backyard deck.

When Schober opened Maya Café in the fall of 2001, he was aiming to recapture the magic of the old El Maya, a popular Latin eatery where he'd waited tables while in graduate school during the early 1970s. He even went so far as to enlist Blanca Castro -- part of the family that ran El Maya -- as a menu consultant. The food, prepared by executive chef Michael Finney, embodied Schober's "pan-Latin" concept. Two years later the pan-Latin dream lives on in an expanded and even more eclectic version, courtesy of the current chef, Bill Sorby.

But first things first. The fresh-made margarita (whose qualities prompted the RFT to laud it as the Best Margarita in St. Louis) is a fine start to a meal here. A blend of lemon, lime and orange juices, freshly squeezed, serves as the base. The more adventurous will try a Maplewoody -- a delicious mixture of dark rum, Licor 43 (a vanilla-tinged Spanish liqueur), tequila, fresh citrus mix, plus cranberry juice and a squirt of club soda. The wine list consists of eight reds and seven whites, mostly Spanish and Australian, priced in the $15-to-$35 range. There's also sangria, freshly made as well. Finally, Maya Café is one of the few places where you can get a real banana daiquiri.

Sorby and his staff display a focused but judicious use of spices. Hot, fresh chips arrive promptly with a tangy salsa replete with thickly diced onions, red and yellow peppers and tomatoes. A calamari appetizer (or calamares, in Spanish) comes lightly breaded and properly fried. But it's the creamy Creole sauce that will keep you reaching for ring after ring of the sliced squid.

The Maya Café is far from simply a Mexican restaurant. The menu includes dishes associated with Central and South American countries, and there's a strong Spanish influence as well. On that last score, paella is now a staple on Friday and Saturday nights. Some dishes -- a Brazilian entrée of shrimp with coconut milk (camarau com leite de coco), banana leaf-wrapped tamales from Colombia, Venezuelan flank steak served with fried plantain and topped with a fried egg (pabellón caraquena) -- run as specials.

Sorby says the menu reflects his desire to introduce St. Louis diners to flavors beyond Mexico. "We're talking about an entire hemisphere that takes you through all kinds of different growth areas and temperatures," he explains. "The food is as varied as the people." He says he plans to dedicate entire months to different cuisines, such as traditional Mexican holiday foods and the rich gastronomic history of Spain's Basque region.

Enchiladas, chimichangas and tacos are listed on the menu, and they're good. The chimichangas come with either roasted chicken or a blend of ground beef and chorizo sausage. On one visit a quesadilla special was a winner: plump shrimp and dark chicken meat between two flour tortillas and accented with a light, spicy sauce. But if you're gonna go pan-Latin, then you might as well go all the way. We ordered a Guatemalan entrée, pollo en pepian dulce, a grilled chicken breast topped with a sweetish sauce of red bell pepper, tomato, onion and garlic, all of which had been stewed in homemade chicken stock infused with bitter orange and cinnamon. A final sprinkle of ground sesame and pumpkin seeds added still more spark. Six spears of grilled asparagus fanned out from the dish, while roasted almonds and raisins soaked in Pisco (a Peruvian brandy) provided the garnish. Flavorful and far from run-of-the-mill.

An order of empanadas comprised four flaky pastries stuffed with shredded brisket, caramelized on-ions and Chihuahua cheese. (You can also order a vegetarian version, stuffed with black beans, jicama and corn.) Tasty, but not as good as the pincho de camarones: eight large shrimp marinated in olive oil and "Maya spice" (Sorby's own blend), then skewered and grilled. Served on a bed of saffron rice, the shrimp were accompanied by a red mole sauce and grilled asparagus. Lunch at Maya Café is a quiet affair, perfectly suited to reading the paper and sipping sangria. And, of course, eating. "El Sandwich Cubano" is an excellent choice, thanks mostly to meaty, moist and flavorful slices of roasted pork loin. Also present and accounted for: ham and Swiss cheese, plus stone-ground mustard and a roasted red pepper aioli. Everything gets stuffed into a traditional Cuban roll.

Two desserts are always on the menu, and both are worth sampling. The flan is dense but not cloyingly sweet, and the sauce of burnt raw sugar, orange and rum provides enough contrast to keep things interesting. The sopapilla takes the form of a tortilla fried to a puffy crispness, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and then drizzled with a sauce of honey, raw sugar and cinnamon. Another treat: an empanada with a homemade mocha-coffee cheesecake filling.

Maya Café's sui generis approach to food and atmosphere does have its quirks. Fortunately, they are all good ones.