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.
Meso Maya Ceviche Mixto $9 Des Rellenos $10 Pozole De Puerco $6 Pollo Enchiladas $11 Cochinita Pibil $16 Carne Asada $18
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.
Other dishes are fine, not disappointing but not causing those contented sighs that mark a dish worthy of lasting memories. Carne asada is passable. Cochinita pibil, a braised pork dish served with addictive pickled red onions, is worth the modest charge the menu asks. Just be careful with the habanero salsa that comes with the pork. It's seriously hot.
Salsas are a Sanchez strong suit. Start with the chips and salsa at the bar. Driven with chiles more than tomatoes, and flecked with black smoke of freshly roasted fruit, the salsa makes versions served at many Tex-Mex joints seem lifeless. Maybe that's the Karns-Sanchez master plan: Lure in the timid palates with some safety plates and surprise them with a Mexican cuisine they didn't expect. They're also hitting a sweet spot in both price point and decor. The tightly designed space boasts rusty orange and deep browns, chunky chairs flickering candles and reclaimed wood.
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Meso Maya elevates a hybrid cuisine without resorting to the stuffy flair of Komali. (Mesa, another regional Mexican spot on the rise, accomplishes this too, but it requires driving to Oak Cliff, which for Preston-Forest corner-dwellers can feel like an odyssey). Salsa doesn't have to be red, tart and vapid, Sanchez seems to be saying; it can be green and earthy and tinged with lust. Tortillas don't have to be flaccid disks of processed corn; they can be an outright celebration of Mexico's native grain.
With some tweaking, Meso Maya could provide the perfect balance of approachability and authenticity — a place in the culinary wheelhouse of timid diners who might not venture outside of the Tex-Mex safety plays they grew up on. But for that to happen, Sanchez needs to continue to improve his consistency, and his wait staff will have to follow suit. He's managed to set up a front-of-the-house staff that's so eager to please their actions can come off as forced and clumsy at times. It's not that they're inattentive; they're just a little green, something that should work itself out with training and time.
Finding time to teach them could be Sanchez's challenge. He's already getting tasked with a second project: Turning the old Luna's Tortilla Factory into a second Meso Maya. Karns bought the space in February 2010 and has been working to revamp it. The work is moving forward, and Dallas' old Little Mexico should have a new Mexican restaurant sometime next year.
Sanchez is using his current diners as test subjects for new dishes. He's excited about the promise the new space holds, and plans to push his new menu further into authentic Mexican cooking with duck mole, lamb dishes, huitlacoche and squash blossoms. If he can pull off the cooking while Karns remakes the space, the duo might have a recipe for one of Dallas' finest Mexican restaurants. It's not that far of a stretch. They've already got the tortillas down.