A Trip Around the World Starts in Maplewood

At Maya Café in Maplewood, traditional recipes from Guatemala, Cuba, Argentina, Spain and Honduras round out a menu of Mexican favorites. The artwork adorning the walls is just as diverse: Works by St. Louis artist Bill Christman, a large floral painting mingling with a Day-of-the-Dead-inspired piece, and abstract and sculptural pieces all make for a fun – and funky – atmosphere. It’s been around for a decade in a neighborhood that has been steadily growing for just as long. A hearty local following has kept this place on the map, and while live music and good margaritas draw the crowds, the food can be hit-or-miss.

First things first, order the guacamole and one of those margs. Both are exemplary: fresh, bright and with just the right amount of salt. Sip, dip, repeat.

Try an order of the oyster nachos, too. Four oysters dredged in cornmeal and deep-fried, then placed atop four cheese-covered flour tortillas. A dollop of guacamole and chipotle sour cream, some shredded lettuce and corn and black bean salsa accompany. It may not be the most sophisticated oyster dish, but it’s a tasty one, with plenty of contrast in both flavor and texture: spicy, cool, crisp and briny. It’s a great dish to share.

Another interesting dish is the lechuga asada. A half head of romaine is marinated in beer and garlic, grilled and doused in a creamy dressing and Chihuahua cheese. We couldn’t deduce any hints of a beer-and-garlic marinade, but the salad was a hit nonetheless. The crunchy, charred outer leaves gave way to warm and juicy inner ones. The dressing is cool and tangy; the cheese, rich and salty.

Depending on your idea of a good fish taco, you’ll either enjoy Maya’s rendition or find it lacking. The minimalist camp will love the simplistic flour tortillas with fried sole and scant guacamole and greens. If you like your fish tacos loaded with the works (salsa, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream, cheese, etc.), however, you’ll be disappointed. Either way, the fish is the main focus and tasty in its seasoned, crisp coating (even if a little dried out).

A big, braised lamb shank, a special one night, was a hit with the whole table. The meat was slow-cooked in a tomato-based sauce with aromatics. Spooned over the lamb was a deep red sauce with a hint of tequila and the slow heat of chiles.

A less successful dish was a traditional Honduran entrée of lightly floured and fried chicken in a sauce of tomatoes, bell and hot peppers, and onion that was thickened with cornmeal. The chicken was dry as a bone and under-seasoned, and the sauce suffered from a case of the blahs. The accompanying fried plantain, however, was tender and sweet and would’ve served as the perfect foil to the chicken and sauce had they been bold and spicy.

Grilled pork loin rubbed in coffee, chiles and brown sugar was a little underwhelming as well. The first bite was great: sweet from the brown sugar and smoky from the grill. But, while the pork was nicely cooked with a hint of pink at the center, it could have used a sauce. Pork loin, after all, is a painfully dry cut.

For dessert, delight in the sopaipilla: a traditional deep-fried tortilla sprinkled with raw sugar and cinnamon, topped with cinnamon ice cream and drizzled with honey. It’s much more than the sum of its parts – simple, yet delicious.

Service was relaxed, friendly and helpful on all visits. Prices seem a bit high for the quality, preparation and presentation of the food, and the southern-most dining room can get distractingly loud when full, especially once the music starts. But like it or not – and whether it’s thanks to the acoustics or the margaritas – a boisterously loud dining room signifies people kicking back and enjoying themselves, and that’s what dining out is all about. Here, there are big parties and singletons, babies and toddlers, elderly early birds and date-nighters; it’s an eclectic crowd to go with a very eclectic restaurant.

WHERE: Maya Café, 2726 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, 314.781.4774
WHEN: Lunch: Tues. to Fri. – 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sat. – noon to 3 p.m. Dinner: Tues. to Thurs. – 5 to 9 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 5 to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on nights with music), Sun. – 5 to 8 p.m.
DON’T MISS DISHES: Lechuga asada, oyster nachos, sopaipilla
VIBE: Casual and laid-back, with a boisterous edge.
ENTRÉE PRICES: $9.95 to $17.95