It was a small, unassuming, black plastic dish I might have overlooked had it not come with an ominous warning. My waiter was very clear. Be careful, this is spicy, he warned the table. The salsa was dark greenish-brown and flecked with the black blistered skins of deeply roasted habanero chilies. I ignored the warning and dove in with a crisp tortilla chip.
Sweetness. The first sensation is not heat, but a prominent sweetness brought about by onions that were roasted to amplify their natural sugars. Then came a slight tang from lime juice and vinegar. While I sat and pondered how something can be so delightfully sweet and tart at the same time, the heat hit me like burst of summer air shimmering off jet-black pavement. This salsa's really spicy — good spicy.
The lively condiment is the work of Sergio Pinto, who opened up Cafe Maya last October on Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, west of all the party supply and clothing stores whose windows are filled with quinceañera dresses. Pinto jumped on the space once home to Ojeda's, buying the business from his aunt, changing the name and championing his own concept.
Queso Maya $5.95
Cochinita pibil $13.95
Ramona's enchiladas $8.95
Chicken Monterrey $14.95
He's off to a decent start. The space is charming and decked in bright reds and blues. Large windows warm it with light. You could comfortably knock back a couple of sugary margaritas at the bar here, but if Pinto wants to really win the hearts of a Tex-Mex-saturated city, he needs to look deep into that little bowl of salsa like it's a crystal ball. Inside that murky liquid is the key to transforming this little restaurant into something much more interesting than it is now.
The free salsa that arrives with your tortilla chips is not unlike the red stuff you get at every other Tex-Mex joint in Dallas. It's tomato-based, with whispers of spiciness but ultimately a boring way to bide your time and waste calories while you wait for other dishes to come.
Not so with the habanero salsa. Rich and lusty, bold and brash, it's a salsa that will do terrible things to you, but you'll take it back again and again even though you know it won't be nicer next time. It's also the most interesting thing on Cafe Maya's menu.
Queso Maya is straight out of the Tex-Mex playbook, pairing black beans, chili con carne and pickled jalapeños with a queso blend that's thick, viscous and tinged orange with spice. Guacamole, prepared tableside, is spiked with salsa fresca, a hearty squeeze of lime and cilantro. But don't conclude that Cafe Maya is a Tex-Mex restaurant that's misnamed. Other dishes lean toward authentic Mexican cooking.
Cochinita pibil, a sour roast pork dish, hails from the Yucatán Península. Bitter and pungent achiote deepens after a long, slow roast in the oven, tinging the pork orange and playing nicely against the tang of citrus. Order the entree and you'll get enough of the soft, shredded pork to stuff into thousands of tortillas, or let the kitchen do the work and order the cochinita tacos, which come topped with pickled red onions that sing. Poc-chuc is a variation on the theme, pairing the same amber marinade with a thinly sliced, grilled pork chop. It's almost as good.
From there the menu meanders and sometimes disappoints.
I want to love the wings. The kitchen kicks up a sauce based on Frank's Red Hot with some more of that killer habanero salsa. The flavors are bright and hot, but the wings need a touch more time in the deep frier to ensure they're good and crispy. They could also use a dipper. If there were a crema-based riff on ranch dressing in the works, the combo would make a compelling and inventive bar snack.
Fajitas bomb, using lifeless, low-quality meat. Steak and chicken versions deliver thin, boring cuts, and shrimp are soft and lifeless.
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Better to go with the enchiladas. You can order from a number of generic and fairly priced choices like spinach, cheese and chicken topped with your choice of sauces including sour cream and chili con carne, but Ramona's enchiladas are the best choice. Smothered with a mild Tampico sauce, the stuffed tortillas boast squash, mushrooms and poblano chiles for a light vegetarian plate.
Chicken Monterrey, on the other hand, pairs a chicken breast served with onions and peppers under a blanket of sour-cream sauce and cheese so thick it eats like a second order of queso. Plates like this, the fajitas and a soggy chile relleno seem clunky on a menu with other more interesting dishes. They're a snooze when compared with that unapologetic habanero salsa.
Big, bold flavors based on fresh ingredients make for compelling eating. If that cochinita pibil made use of more achiote and more sour, Seville oranges and perhaps some high-quality heritage swine, it would be one of the greatest incarnations of the classic Yucatán dish to grace Dallas' dining scene. It would also be interesting enough to anchor Cafe Maya as a notable "Mex-Tex" restaurant in Oak Cliff.
For now, many flavors and ingredients seem muted and in need of an upgrade. The concept is there, but it feels soft, especially when that habanero salsa reminds you just how vibrant this cuisine can be. Pinto is playing the right music, he just needs to turn up the volume.