Monday, February 4, 2013

The Mayan Café: My Louisville Love

There are a few places with which I have a relationship that I can name with certainty. By that I mean that I feel like I have a connection with their mission, true and vivid memories of my visits in the past, and a real desire to come back again and see what's new, like we are old friends. I am happy to say that this is a phenomenon that happens with some frequency in my hometown, Louisville, but none so much as with The Mayan Café.

The name itself conjures some sort of mysticism, at least from my personal associations with the Mayan people and their history. The restaurant has a feeling of home, although its roots are from a place most Louisvillians have never visited. It is a concept fully realized because of the heart and passion of its creators.

The Mayan Café is sustainable, conscious of the bounty of our local resources, and infinitely aware of their ability to impact our local community, from farm to table and beyond. What can be better than a socially-conscious, environmentally-friendly, and consistently inspiring place to nourish your soul? Nothing really, at least from this Louisville Lady Gourmet's point of view.

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but I'm a big fan.

There is a fire that drives the rhythm of The Mayan Café, the flavors, the presentation, the technique. No, I'm not talking about the stereotypical spice that we North Americans attribute to our neighbors down South (yes, it's hot down there guys, but seriously...). It is raw and original beauty, or better yet, it's got soul.

This family affair nestled on East Market (before it became trendy) is honestly what I would consider the cornerstone of that neighborhood, and even further, the flagship of really fantastic and honest food in our fair city. I get excited just thinking about an occasion I can celebrate at Mayan-- let's be serious, the visit itself is a celebration.

When I tell people that I like to cook, eat out in Louisville, and write about it, they usually ask me what my favorite restaurant is. This is always a difficult question because I don't have favorites of anything. However, I consistently answer that The Mayan Café is the restaurant that has delivered the most shockingly good food I have had in this city on every single occasion I have visited. That is a testament to the restaurant's commitment to great food, ambiance, service, and community presence.

I must admit, I have a really great capacity for remembering meals that I have eaten. I can relive the flavors and textures, and even the feelings that those meals inspired. Every time I go back to the Mayan Café, a flood of wonderful memories overwhelm me, the flavors, the friends I shared my meals with. That is what makes good food...when it transcends a metamorphosis of ingredients, and becomes something to remember.

Now let's get to the actual food of my last visit.

Funny thing, during all of the silliness of the Mayan apocalypse, I did find myself at the Mayan Café know, just in case. That is where I wanted to eat my last meal...does that tell you anything? Their menu was spot on. I felt comfort and fulfillment, probably the two most sought after feelings of one facing their possible last day on Earth. Luckily enough, that wasn't the case and I'll be able to continue my visits.

On this particular day we were having a dinner out before our Christmas break from our flamenco company, so our friends joined us making a party of five. To me, that meant I got to try five different menu selections, and to be honest that is ideal for me because I genuinely want to eat everything on the menu anyway! Here were our choices:

Lobster ceviche
Chicken tamale
Vegetarian burrito
Cochinita Pibil
Beef Tenderloin
Seafood bisque and salad with pomegranite, pepitas, pears, and winter greens
Chocolate bread pudding with lavender chocolate sauce.

The Lobster ceviche and chicken tamale were the choices of the Handsome Spaniard, who was visiting for Christmas...oh what a happy time! His choices were equally joyful. The lobster ceviche was gorgeous with a perfect mouthfeel. I'd never tried lobster ceviche, but have had tuna and whitefish ceviches that were beautiful, I just didn't know what it would do to the flesh of the lobster, which differs from regular fish. I can only tell you that it is an experience you should have before your life ends...and the heat of the habañero with the freshness of avocado and cilantro...oh, yes!
The chicken tamale was everything a tamale should be, with a comforting and velvety smooth masa sweetly embracing the spiced shredded chicken inside. Never a disappointment.

The Vegetarian Burrito is a favorite on our visits to Mayan. It is always fantastic, friendly to the wallet, and chock full of good nutrients and even better flavor. The sauce that is served with it is to die for...any of Chef Ucán's sauces would definitely need to be involved in my last meal on earth, and that's not an exception. The fried egg on top is truly what crowns this masterpiece of a burrito, and the slightest prod with your knife will send a cascade of golden yolkey goodness to round out the flavors and blow your mind.

The Cochinita Pibil was my choice for the night, and it helped me inch closer to nirvana. I swear, everything that their talented chefs touch turns to gold (or Mayan gold, because that cacao bean really makes some magic in their kitchen). In my experiences across all of their dishes, I have never been disappointed by the variety of ingredients and their balanced representation. I feel like I can actually taste all of the vegetables, meats, spices, starches, and sauces that make up a mere forkful of food at this restaurant, without a certain flavor sacrificing itself to another. That is something special my friends, something very special indeed.

The Beef Tenderloin, which featured the legendary Tok-Sel Lima Beans that are also on my last meal list, was just heavenly. Whenever you can take a piece of beef and cook it until it still holds its shape, but somehow changes states of matter from solid to melted tenderness in your mouth, you've also created culinary bliss. That was this beef tenderloin; so tender that a single bite was enough for me to swear up and down about the merits of the dish as a whole. My friend across the table had good taste that night in more ways than one.

The Seafood Bisque and Salad with Pomegranate, Pepitas, Pears, and Winter Greens was a lighter, yet no less fulfilling choice by another friend with fine taste. The bisque was rich and satisfying with the depth of flavor that can only really come from seafood-- as well as great color and consistency. It smelled and tasted like my best days on the Mediterranean, but with a distinctly Yucatán flavor. The accompanying salad was full, exciting, and left nothing to be desired except for another plate full. I loved the playful flavors of the pumpkin seeds (pepitas) next to the pears and pomegranate, especially the juxtaposition of the pepitas' rich nuttiness and crunch with the always delightful pops of pomegranate. It was a beautiful fresh winter salad, which is something we often take for granted.

Finally, and yes I'm almost finished, we arrive at the grand finale: dessert. This is always exciting for me because my choices have the opportunity to stretch their legs a bit. The dessert menu changes frequently, as does their full menu, but the desserts always remain a mystery until that I get a little more excited. Honestly, any time you give me choices of chocolate, more chocolate, something with bourbon, something with chocolate and lavender, and cream sauce, I'm going to be the happiest little Lady Gourmet there ever was. I know there are more choices outside of chocolate, but that's all I choose to listen to, and this particular evening we went for the chocolate bread pudding with chocolate lavender sauce, kissed with pomegranate seeds. That chocolate-lavender combination makes my soul sing. Do I need to say anything more?

As a closing: I have met Chef Bruce Ucán once in person, and I nearly genuflected. As a lover of creating and consuming great food, I admire him, his fellow chefs, the front of the house, management, and all of those who make that restaurant truly Louisville. I am happy to have a restaurant that I will always look forward to indulging my best self in.

Cheers to The Mayan Café, and here's to hoping that future generations of Louisville culinary masterpieces follow in stride.

...I would love to peek my head into that kitchen one day and learn what makes those guys tick. This year's goal is to try to pick the minds of the great cooks of our fair city, so let's see what happens!

¡Salud y Qué aproveches! 

The Mayan Café
813 East Market Street
Louisville, KY 40206
You should probably go make your reservation now...


  1. my mouth is watering!! Great review

  2. Gretchen GruenbergFebruary 5, 2013 at 4:29 PM

    Fantastic review! As a Louisville native I am slightly embarrassed that I have yet to experience The Mayan Cafe. I shall remedy this as soon as possible!

  3. My favorite restaurant in town. Awesome post!