FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Maya is one of dozens of small businesses in a row of strip malls and plazas along Wilson Ave. It's nothing fancy – the lighting is bright, the red tablecloths have a few crumbs, and the glassware and plates look as if they came from a yard sale. But the welcome is warm, and traditional artwork makes the place colourful and homey. Regulars sit at the small bar sipping beer and chatting in Spanish.
Owner Luis Carpio, who learned to cook in his native Guatemala, was a short-order cook in San Francisco and came to Canada determined to have his own restaurant. Maya – named for the indigenous people of Central America – opened in 1999. Carpio cheerfully works as waiter and cook (a woman waits tables during the busy weekend breakfast-time while Carpio is at the stoves). He sits down with us at the table to take our order and is happy to explain various ingredients and styles of dishes. We feel like a part of his family.
ON THE PLATE: Carpio says his menu is a mix of Central American dishes, plus his own touches. He aims to keep items simple and healthy, trying to cut back on the amount of oil used in traditional dishes.
Anything with avocado is very good at Maya, from the creamy guacamole ($4.95 for a generous bowl with store-bought tortilla chips) to the perfectly ripe yet firm slices that adorn salad plates. Plantain, sliced lengthwise and pan-fried ($2.50), is nicely browned and caramelized outside, starchy and fluffy inside.
The menu features a handful of appetizers and a range of mains, from fish to pork. Most plates come with simple green salad, rice with vegetables and refried beans.
SECOND HELPINGS: We love the flavourful refried black beans, cooked simply with salt and garlic and puréed to a pudding-like smoothness.
The Maya Mixta appetizer ($5.95) is so good thanks to supremely juicy chunks of pan-seared chicken breast. (Carpio chuckles and tells us that in Guatemala, locals prefer hot dogs over chicken in this dish.) It's a simple plate – just a couple of warmed corn tortillas topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and cilantro, slices of avocado, chicken, a citrus-spiked dressing and a ribbon of mayonnaise – but it's good and filling.
Carne Adobada ($12.95) is another simple dish, but also a winner: pork rubbed with spices and grilled, but still juicy and tender.
Don't miss the Pollo con Lorocos ($10.95). A substantial serving of juicy chicken breast pieces (Carpio seems to have unlocked the secret to perfectly cooked chicken) seared to golden, then finished in a rich cream sauce that's subtly flavoured with loroco, a small aromatic flower that's a popular herb-like addition to dishes in Latin America. The buds look like immature lilacs and the taste is hard to nail down, a bit like mild broccoli with a hint of capers perhaps. Carpio finds them canned in Kensington Market, since the fresh flowers are too fragile to import. The dish is very good and my El Salvadoran companion swears it's a genuine taste of home. We wipe the plate clean with the help of more warmed corn tortillas.
TAKE A PASS: The gummy white rice mixed with thawed frozen mixed vegetables served with most entrées is bland. And for all the love that's shown chicken and pork, the tough slab of steak that comes with Bandeja Chapina ($14.95) is like leather. Yuca frita – fried cassava – is canned ($3.95) but our server warns us that's the case, so we don't order it. On a second visit, the server says they don't have any.
And surely there are more exciting desserts to offer than a dish of ice cream or fresh fruit. What about the sinfully rich très leches (three milks) cake?
EXTRAS: On a cold winter day, this simple, satisfying Central American food hits the spot, especially at breakfast. Served only Saturday and Sunday when the restaurant opens at 10 a.m., not only is breakfast here a great value – ranging from $3.99 for pancakes with fruit and coffee, to $5.95 for a meal that could fill a field hand – it's delicious.
We go for the Desayuno Maya ($5.95) and get a basket of four warmed corn tortillas, two very fresh eggs fried in oil until the edges are crisped, but the yolks still bright yellow and runny, a large serving of the addictive refried beans and an equally generous amount of rich, crème fraîche-like crema. Plus there are slices of pan-fried plantain and a mound of sautéed, crumbled, fried longaniza, a mild pork sausage flavoured with diced sweet red peppers that reminds us of ground chorizo, though not as spicy. The price even includes coffee. Or try the subtly chili-spiked hot chocolate.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $2.50 to $11.95. Soups: $6.95 to $14.95 for meal-sized seafood soup with rice on the side. Entrées: $9.95 to $15.95. Mains come with Guatemalan-style rice with veggies, green salad and refried black beans. Desserts: $3.95 to $5.95.
BOTTOM LINE: "I try to cook similar to back home, try to use our own spices and try to be simple," explains Carpio. "I've been burning my hands every day to try to improve," he says with a chuckle. "I really like what I do. You know, that's the secret of work, if you like what you do."
And we like what he does, too.
Stars are awarded for food, service and atmosphere. Reviews are based on two anonymous visits that are paid for by the Star.