By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
Every morning around 9, a large pot of water containing dried white corn and lime comes to a boil inside the kitchen of Meso Maya — the first step of a two-day process that yields fresh hand-made tortillas for hundreds of diners each day. The procedure is straightforward but hardly easy. Too much time in the hot water and the corn cooks away to mush, robbing the masa of its flavor. Too much lime and things discolor and turn bitter, too little and the membrane that surrounds each kernel won't completely dissolve, leaving traces of the thin, papery skin in the finished product, now called nixtamal.
Later in the morning, another worker removes yesterday's batch of corn from the walk-in, strains and rinses the mixture and feeds it through the kitchen's molino mill. If the stones in the grinder are set with too much pressure, excessive friction will cook the masa as it's ground. Too little pressure and the mixture will be too coarse.
It's a delicate balance, but when it's struck, when all the components play nicely together, the results can be transcendent. Simultaneously delicate and sturdy, tortillas made this way smell richly of roasted corn. They prove a robust counterpoint for fillings like stewed chicken and grilled meat, but unlike most tortillas, they can stand alone. They're the kind of tortillas that turn heads.
At any given time, up to three employees can be working to turn out these tortillas at Meso Maya, as many as 1,000 on busy weekends. Even on slow days they're fashioned by the hundreds, shaped one at a time with a hand press and cooked lightly on a flat grill until they become soft, pliable and aromatic. For all that work, it's ironic that the tortillas arrive at the restaurant's tables wrapped in simple, unbleached parchment paper. But tortillas are supposed to be humble. They're the staple starch of working people. And they're damn beautiful as they are.
Meso Maya's chef, Nico Sanchez, doesn't have to devote so much of his staff's time and effort to tortilla making. He could employ masa harina — a dried, instant version of masa that's mixed by adding a little water — and still rightfully claim he serves fresh, hand-made tortillas. But he'd be missing the point, as so many restaurants do. The tortillas would be smooth and homogenous and lack irregularities and character. They'd be just another tortilla. And Meso Maya would be just another Mexican restaurant.
Sanchez was tapped as this restaurant's chef by Mike Karns, owner of the El Fenix chain. Thankfully for Preston Hollow, which has its share of nap-inducing Tex-Mex, Karns had something different in mind here. He was ready to tackle Mex-Mex, or as close to it as the neighborhood's palate would allow. And his effort was, by many measurements, a resounding success.
In addition to those tortillas, Sanchez turns out an outstanding pozole. The pork and hominy stew balances rich and earthy pork and guajillo chile broth with an aggressive counter of lime. The citrus is dominant and keeps your taste buds on edge. You'll wonder if it's too much, right before you find yourself devouring another spoonful, and you'll continue this debate over and over till it's gone.
Ceviche is another winner, dressing shrimp and striped bass with lime and onions and a cool, smooth dice of avocado. Blow off the blue-corn tortilla chips served at the base of the martini glass and dig in with your fork instead. Ceviche is almost always at its best when a chef is soft-handed, and Sanchez lets the seafood shine.
An appetizer of chili rellenos strays from tradition in a play that's gutsy but works. Instead of roasted green chiles, Sanchez employs peppadew peppers from South Africa. Pickled in a sweet brine, the peppers are stuffed with goat cheese and queso fresco and encased in crisp tempura. The resulting bites, the size of large marbles, explode with acidity, sweetness and a creamy tang of warm, melted cheese. If Meso Maya offered these as an amuse bouche, they might become Sanchez's signature.
From there the food stalls some, slowed by inconsistency and loose execution that mires what could be brilliant cooking. The most beautiful enchilada, stuffed with fragrant, tender chicken and blanketed with a poblano mole, is flanked by boring rice and bland beans. On another night those same black beans are perfect — this time adequately salted. The rice, however, is still a snooze.
Chicken with a red Oaxacan mole is equally frustrating. During my visit, the sauce started off acrid but settled in to a not-too-sweet earthy flavor with a soft, subtle glow. I sopped up any excess with those corn tortillas, mopping my plate clean. Too bad the chicken breast it supported was so dry.
Queso fundido is a dish that could be amusing. It's refreshing to spoon chiles, crumbled sausage and freshly melted cheese into warm tortillas, while you try to forget the soupy Velveeta of your favorite Tex-Mex haunt. But the sausage is dry and salty, and the cheese isn't sufficiently melted. It strings and gloops, invoking that oily, broken mess that made Velveeta popular in the first place.
Carne Asada is "passable"? On my visit, it was amazing! If there's a better one out there, could you please fill me in??