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Mexican Smackdown 

Wrestling with the good, the bad, and the trendy

Wednesday, Nov 30 2005
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All I wanted to do was give my friends Suvir and Charlie and their friend Abhimanyu a good dinner. Which, in this city stuffed full of gastronomic delights, you wouldn't think would be a problem. The last time we'd gotten together here, we'd enjoyed a progressive supper, sampling burritos and tacos at three Mission taquerias, enjoying aloo puri and chicken tikka masala at three Indian dives, and finishing up with dessert at a fancy French place -- an evening we all remembered with pleasure. But I figured Suvir would be tired from a week's teaching at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, not to mention opening a new restaurant, Veda, in his hometown of New Delhi, since we'd met. (Plus, let's be honest: I didn't know if I was up to finding several parking places on a Friday night.) Suvir requested Mexican, and I wanted someplace comfortable, more upscale than the fluorescent lights and rickety tables at my favorite, Mi Lindo Yucatan, and nearer to their hotel than Doña Tomás in Oakland. I'd heard good things about Maya, and a Web search revealed that the chef/owner, Richard Sandoval, was in town that week cooking a lunch to celebrate Rick Bayless' new Mexican cookbook, another good sign. (Sandoval also has restaurants in New York and Denver, and soon in Dubai.)

The place was way bigger and way noisier than I'd expected. We followed the host as he wended his way through several crowded rooms (the restaurant is on the ground floor of an office building) to a window table. It felt like a hotel dining room during a convention. There was a lot to read on the long menu: 14 appetizers, 14 entrees, all described via a lengthy list of ingredients. (Sample: "Halibut totec: pan roasted Alaskan halibut dusted with black & white sesame seeds/purple mashed potatoes/spicy lobster broth/scallops/ frisse [sic] salad/chive oil, 22.5." Not for nothing is Maya's Web site www.modernmexican.com.) You can order a la carte or choose from two prix fixe options: a limited three courses at $29.95 or unlimited at $35.50. We went the prix fixe route, starting with chile relleno, sopa de elote, tamal al chipotle, quesadillas surtidas, and extra shared plates of guacamole and tacos de camaron, moving on to mole poblano, carnitas, that complicated halibut dish, and a vegetarian enchilada.

This is what we liked: nothing. Oh, I'm being a tiny bit harsh. The corn soup was sweet and soothing, though not precisely hot, and I enjoyed its little garnish of a huitlacoche-stuffed dumpling, musing aloud, "What does it say about me that my favorite kind of smut is corn smut?" And we found the halibut nicely cooked, though its broth was not exactly spicy, and if a lobster was involved it died in vain. But the entire evening can be summed up by our guacamole experience. We replied, "Spicy!" when asked if we'd prefer mild, medium, or spicy, and were rewarded with a bowl of what tasted like no more than mashed avocado, set rather insultingly atop a decorative, never-used stone molcajete (mortar), reminding us of many superior guacamoles made for us at table in Mexican restaurants high and low. When we told the server that it lacked heat (and, Suvir added, salt and citrus, and I wouldn't have minded the menu's listed onion, tomatoes, and cilantro, but I didn't mention them), his response was to bring us a little bowl of chopped chilies. Suvir doctored the concoction himself, even squeezing the chunks of lime and lemon from our drinks into it, in a desperate attempt to add flavor.

The meal proceeded in a grim parade of lackluster platters, served tepid, to similar reaction. I felt as if we were in a nightmare chain restaurant (truthfully, I'd had a much less embarrassing meal at the Chevys conveniently located across from Yerba Buena Center, conveniently open after a movie screening and featuring a sincere guacamole that got even tastier in retrospect). Suvir gallantly said that my carnitas were "not bad" -- I, disagreeing with even that assessment, replied, "I don't go out for 'not bad'!" -- but he collapsed into giggles when his flan tasted "like it was made from a packet." Only the crepes anointed with crema de cajeta (goat's milk caramel, which I can eat straight from the jar) left a sweet taste in our mouths. We could have eaten (better) at Mi Lindo Yucatan for a week for what it cost us.

Suvir asked where he should take Charlie for breakfast the next day. "Does Chez Panisse serve brunch?" he asked, to which I had to reply, alas, no, but recommended the Alice Waters-approved Primavera stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. On the morrow, I took my own advice, after picking my friend Ruth up at the airport and ferrying her to the Hotel Vitale, across the street from the Ferry Building. It was early enough that the ever-present line was fairly short -- just long enough for us to decide that we wanted to try both of the daily specials and to consider every tamale option (chicken mole poblano, polenta beef aka "tamale pie," butternut squash with jack cheese) in case we wanted to add one (we chose to leave room for some Farmers Market snacking). We toted our plates over to a bench and sat enjoying the matchless view, the surreally sunny November weather, and most of all our delicious meal: chilaquiles, the tortilla pieces coated with a dark hot sauce made from guajillo chilies and served with organic scrambled eggs, superior refried beans, tangy sour cream, ripe avocado, chopped onions, and cilantro; and Yucatecan panuchos, tender marinated braised pork heaped on a tostada, the soft tortilla mounded with black beans and topped with citrus-marinated onion and avocado. Every time I finish a perfect breakfast at Primavera, I begin looking forward to the next one.

The heart-of-the-bustling-Marina location of Mamacita, plus the fact that we couldn't get a reservation ("But we save half our tables for walk-ins"), made Peter and me a little nervous, but a staffer estimated the wait at only half an hour. We spent it pleasantly at the bar, sipping well-made margaritas (I went for the chichi pomegranate version, figuring I could use the antioxidants) and admiring both the chic décor ("Do you know how they hung that huge mirror?" I said to Peter, who bit: "Very carefully!"), which included beautiful clusters of star-shaped light fixtures and contemporary photographs, and the not typically Marina crowd, which included customers older (than us, even) and younger (cute kids wearing spelunking headlights) than we expected.

We enjoyed everything that issued from the tiny semiopen kitchen: guacamole al don, with its jalapeños, cilantro, lime, and dusting of queso fresco happily evident; calamari mixto, tiny rounds of cornmeal-crusted local calamari and even smaller discs of jalapeño, nicely fried and served with a too-sweet chipotle-agave sauce; lovely house-made tamales, the good masa stuffed with moist adobo chicken, then anointed with squiggles of tart red mole (I could have used more of it, but we'd finished them off before I could request it) and crema; wonderful little carnitas-stuffed tacos, the trio dressed with grilled corn, avocado, salsa verde, and an arbol chili sauce; soothing chicken enchiladas, fancily named rojas sencillas but tasting very Betty Crocker (and I mean that in a good way); and my favorite, elote chino, white corn sautéed with garlic, scallions, and red mole. There was only one dessert on offer, but it was a good one: sopapillas, the puffed pastries served in honey-drenched shards topped with Ciao Bella dulce de leche ice cream. I wish I'd taken Suvir and Charlie here.

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Meredith Brody

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