Meso Maya has a very likable chef working its kitchen. If you sit at the bar at downtown's newest Mexican restaurant, which opened last December, you'll easily find Nico Sanchez. Just over the bottles of tequila stacked behind the bar like a yellow sunset you'll see him in the open kitchen. The chef stands at the center of the pass, polishing plates and calling out orders while he looks out into the dining room from his open kitchen.
Corner Sanchez and ask the secret to his suadero — even in the middle of dinner service — and he'll speak unfettered, detailing the intricacies of an obscure beef cut that is missing in many Dallas taquerías but alive and well in his restaurant. Dispatched as a crunchy and meaty taco filling, the beef is overrun with soft, delicious fat that almost melts away when you take a bite.
The beef tacos are sold among other cuts of meat tucked into tortillas made from freshly ground corn at La Ventana, the small, outdoor taquería that shares a kitchen with and frames the back of the main restaurant. Come by for lunch on a day with agreeable weather and taco enthusiasts will be in line, waiting for their chance to order a simple lengua, barbacoa, pastor with small but sweet hunks of pineapple, and other specials. Crunchy, sweet churros are for sale, and breakfast tacos too. All but extreme taco fetishists will find every base covered, including the requisite green and red salsas.
1611 McKinney Ave., 214-484-6555, mesomaya.com. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. $$$
Cochinita pibil $17
Pescado Veracruzano $19
Brisket enchilada $13
Boudin Azteca $13
Bread pudding $8
There's a lot to like back in the main dining room too. The décor is slick, with low ceilings and dark brown woods and subdued lighting that give the space the feeling of a rural cellar suitable for storing wine and tequila. A line of shiny canisters contrasts with the dim dining room, igniting the pass and drawing your attention back to the illuminated kitchen.
Even when the dining room is loud, which is much of the time, you can still hear the hissing burners, clanking steel and bubbling oil if you're close enough. One night I sat at the bar and watched well-bronzed chickens rotating over a smoldering bed of mesquite and hickory, which spit amber fireflies up into the cooking vents. It's an attractive space for eating.
Some dishes, like the chicharrones, though, should be avoided, not only because they're dense and overcooked, but also because the plate is too one-dimensional. The fat in crispy, fried pig skin calls for salt and a fresh squeeze of lime or something else brightening, but Sanchez employs melted queso topped with even more pork.
The pickled onions served with the cochinita pibil offer much better balance, but the Mayan roast pork could still use some work. The meat is soft and mealy and lacks the sunny citrus flavors and aggressive achiote that mark an exemplary version of the dish. A mixture of freshly squeezed lime and oranges in the marinade would help. Sanchez says he uses a concentrated sour orange juice in his marinade because the fruit is hard to find when it isn't in season. Meanwhile, the restaurant's website says the kitchen offers bold flavors and seasonal ingredients.
This same theme plays out across many dishes in flavors that seem soft and subdued instead of brash and full of life. Striped bass is perfectly cooked but quiet, and barbecued ribs covered in a sweet sauce are fall-apart tender but lack piquancy and character. The same goes for the black beans you'll find alongside many dishes, which taste simply of legumes cooked in water. Simple cooking like this may seem home-style to some, but tastes boring and bland to those who prefer the subtle pungency of garlic or the musky spice of freshly toasted and ground cumin.
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This is the second location of Meso Maya for Sanchez and the next in an endless series of restaurants from Mike Karns, whose Firebird Restaurant group also owns the Dallas-based El Fenix Tex-Mex chain. The duo announced the newest restaurant shortly after the first Meso Maya opened in the fall of 2011 in a Preston Hollow shopping complex. If you're familiar with the first location you'll recognize most of the dishes here. The boudin Azteca, a dish made from tortillas layered with fillings like lasagna, is a good bet, as are the enchiladas. Both come in beef, chicken, shrimp and other varieties.
Sometimes the cooking seems invigorated by the new digs. The tortillas remind me of the rounds I sampled when I reviewed the first location more than a year ago. On a recent visit to the original Meso Maya, the tortillas were tough and dry, but here they're light, fluffy and pliable. But it's still hard to get excited about a restaurant that's almost a carbon copy of one we were just introduced to.
The most exciting things about the new downtown location are the elements that are distinctly different from the original. That wood-roasted chicken from Sanchez's new rotisserie becomes a flavorful and smoky pollo con mole, and the taquería out back does a great job of offering traditional street food. The tacos have been elevated and refined while still remaining true to their pedestrian roots. And gamey flavors, challenging textures and fiery salsas have all been tempered in a space that will welcome curious diners. This is a great place to try suadero taco for the first time, or tongue, or barbacoa made from beef cheeks.
Well-seasoned diners, though, and fans of rustic cooking will find the food here safe and ultimately boring. Sanchez's cooking will undoubtedly be successful with the daytime office crowds and the tourists and out-of-town visitors who dominate downtown dining. For a true fan, however, this food lacks the earthy, gritty, messy characteristics that make Mexican cooking so interesting.