The crew at Maya's Mexican Bistro puts on a fine show.

Guac Stars 

The crew at Maya's Mexican Bistro puts on a fine show.

There's an unspoken truth in the dining business that goes something like this: If two friends open a restaurant together, they won't be friends for long. Remember the old I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ricky Ricardo buy a little diner with their best friends Fred and Ethel Mertz? Within days, the two couples hate each other. Then they come to their senses and unload the diner, at a loss, to the original owner.

Ha, ha, ha! Alas, it's not just a sitcom plot. In the years I worked in restaurants, I was at several where the partnerships -- and friendships -- came unglued at about the same time that the places were becoming successful. In one case, accusations and lawsuits flew all over the dining room; in another, it was just china flying amid the screaming fits -- including a platter that came close to scalping me, an innocent waiter.

That's not always the case, of course. In Kansas City, there's the longtime PB&J partnership of Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury, who clearly learned a lot about teamwork when they were employed by legendary restaurateurs Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson. But it's hard to think of many other success stories -- I get too frazzled at the memory of that near-fatal platter attack.

Now four local couples -- Kelly Alvarez-Clodfelter and her husband, Rodney (the former sous chef at Piropos); Kelly's brother, Peter Alvarez; and his wife, Lisa Alvarez; longtime friends Mike and Marsha Murray; and their daughter and son-in-law, Kelly and Andy Collinsworth -- are going to succeed, they say, where the Ricardos and the Mertzes could not. Too many cooks are not spoiling the pot at their four-week-old Maya's Mexican Bistro, which may turn out to be the first restaurant in this south-side strip mall to succeed.

I don't think this location is necessarily cursed, but three previous tenants (Tucci's Italian Restaurant, Big Bubba's Bar-b-q and Donz Steakhouse) couldn't cut the mustard in the space. The team running Maya's has given the dining room an appealing makeover, but the food is the real draw. It's a savvy combination of the familiar taco-and-burrito selection and some really creative and tasty new stuff. In this case, having too many cooks is a good thing.

OK, only Peter and Lisa Alvarez and chef Rodney Clodfelter actually run the day-to-day operations. But each of the participants had a voice in pulling the place together.

"We actually all get along very well," Lisa Alvarez says. "We knew what we were going to do coming into this business, and we all have the same goal."

At my first visit to Maya's, the goal was merely to get a decent dinner, because I was starving. My friends Ned and Diane had their own agendas, which included picking the interior décor to shreds. "The lighting is ghastly," Ned said as he lifted a margarita to his lips. "And if these menus were any harder to read, they'd be printed in Esperanto. Who thought of white print on red paper? If I read one more word, I'll pass out!"

I was much less critical of the interior design, which had more in common with Pottery Barn than with any dive in Puerto Vallarta. I liked the moody lighting, the tan napkins and the black tablecloths. And I liked the looks of the attractive young servers, who slinked by in form-fitting black shirts and pants.

Diane wondered why our handsome waiter wore a wedding band on his right hand. "I think it's a secret code," she said, dipping a tortilla chip into a smoky house salsa. "But I haven't figured it out yet."

She never did, though she did make the poor kid endure the grisly story about how she discovered she was allergic to guacamole, a tale that should never be repeated at a dinner table, particularly while another server -- "Guacamole Joey," in this case -- is making a showy display of mixing avocado, pico de gallo, orange juice, lime juice and a splash of tequila in a molcajete. At less than five bucks, this hefty portion of custom-made guac is a fabulous deal. Diane, however, seemed stunned that sour cream wasn't an ingredient.

"It only has sour cream in it if it's something called guacamole dip," I informed her. "It's a Ladies Home Journal recipe."

"Some of us prefer Mexican-American cuisine," she said icily. She proceeded to order chicken enchiladas rather than one of chef Rodney Clodfelter's specialties. Ned and I decided to be more adventurous and ignore the traditional tacos, fajitas and burritos on the right side of the menu. Instead, we opted for Clodfelter's dinner entrées. Ned ordered and then raved about his lightly battered chile rellenos; the tender poblanos were stuffed with bits of shrimp, scallops and snapper in a mild almond cream sauce.

I snagged a couple of bites -- the dish was indeed delicioso. So was Clodfelter's south-of-the-border version of the otherwise continental chicken cordon bleu, a grilled breast bursting with bubbly queso sauce and bits of salty ham and draped in a poblano cream sauce. I practically inhaled that juicy breast and the accompanying wild rice cooked with peppers, corn and black beans.

On my next visit, with Bob, Jeannie and John in tow, I suggested we each order one of the house specialties, which meant that Bob, the dolor en el asno in any group, immediately ordered a beef-and-bean burrito. It's what he wanted, damn it, and it tasted great. The sophisticates among us got fancier grub. Jeannie nibbled on a plump pink fillet of salmon, which Clodfelter had lightly grilled, then brushed with a sweet, orange glaze and baked inside a fresh banana leaf. I was grateful that John shared a bit of his puerco con chorizo, slices of moist pork loin rolled around spicy chorizo and served with a topaz-colored mound of mashed sweet potatoes drizzled with a punchy ancho mole.

My own dinner was Maya's carne asada, a thin and surprisingly tender slice of marinated rib eye with wedges of buttery avocado and warm flour tortillas. It's the only dish named for the restaurant's imaginary namesake, who isn't a real person at all -- Lisa Alvarez just liked the sound of the word Mayan. Customers tend to ask the servers whether Lisa or Kelly Alvarez-Clodfelter is the mysterious Maya. "Kelly gets picked out as Maya a lot more than I do," Lisa says.

Will the real Maya please stand up? Her signature dish, the carne asada, is a light, uncomplicated meal, but leave it to me to sabotage a potentially low-carbohydrate supper by overindulging on chips, guacamole and an order of the lusciously spicy appetizer of camarones -- shrimp sautéed in dried chiles and toasted garlic.

The idea of eating dessert on top of everything else caused my stomach to rumble, so I played demure until the arrival of the supple, silken flans that Jeannie and John had ordered. "Are you sure you don't want a bite?" Jeannie asked. She scooped up a spoonful of amber-colored caramel sauce and waved it in front of my nose.

Like a bull tormented by the scarlet rustle of a bullfighter's cape, I lost my head and grabbed a spoon and took a healthy bite of the smooth, cold custard. It was so divine that I didn't notice that I had spilled a trail of caramel sauce down the front of my sweater. I looked ridiculous, but sometimes it's the restaurant's customers, not its owners, who behave as if they're in a sitcom.

Call me Charlie Mertz and pass the flan.

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