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Chéen-huyae is the sort of feel-good, fail-safe restaurant that timid American tourists visiting the Yucatan might approach with enthusiasm. A glass storefront façade lends an airy ambiance to the neat and petite 30-seater, even if it offers only the lackluster vista of a parking lot. Beige walls bedecked with sepia-tone photos of old Mexico, a six-stool bar offering Dos Equis on tap, and a basket of corn chips as clean and crisp as the décor would bring a smile to the face of any gringo and gringa as would a dish of chiltomate, a charred tomato-chili salsa that Chéen apparently prepares without chilies.
The menu is eager to please, a modicum of Yucatecan specialties rolled into a conventional cornucopia of Mexican-American classics such as quesadillas, enchiladas, and tacos. Diners seeking more authentic south-of-the-border sensations will relish Chéen's service staff: informally adept, exceedingly friendly, and not very convincingly versed in English. The lack of language skills might or might not have been to blame for our twice ordering an appetizer of guacamole and neither time receiving it.
Chéen-huyae is a Mayan term meaning "only here," the "here" in this case being a strip mall at Biscayne Boulevard and 154th Street, where this new purveyor of "Southern Mexican cuisine" settled just more than three months ago. "Only here you will have all the flavors of the Yucatecan cuisine" the menu tells us, although Burritos Grill Café, some 30 blocks south, also serves food from the peninsula. Be that as it may, Chéen is owned and operated by Magna Vieira, from Brazil, and her Yucatecan husband Marco Velasquez, who do an admirable job of re-creating credible renditions of this fresh regional fare which does indeed distinguish their establishment from mostother local Mexican joints.
15400 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33160
Region: Aventura/North Miami Beach
Pickled red onions (escabeche) and recado rojo are basically the only ingredients you need to grasp in order to understand the Yucatecan dishes served at Chéen. The red onions, blanched and marinated in vinegar, accompany nearly every Yucatecan item, so you can bet your burrito that if the meal you're picking at is not pinnacled with pickled pink onions, you're eating regular Mexican fare. Recados are chili and spice pastes, recado rojo being a brick-red pulverization of achiote seeds, black pepper, oregano, cloves, cumin, and garlic, which is smeared upon most of the Yucatecan meats here.
Cochinita pibil is arguably the most famous Yucatecan dish. Pib, in Mayan, refers to a pit in which little achiote-marinated pigs (or chickens), wrapped in banana leaves, are cooked underground, smoked with coals, and smothered by burning leaves from fragrant plants such as fig, guava, and wild basil. The restaurant equivalent is to steam hunks of pork in banana leaf parcels and finish them in the oven. Chéen's version was the high point of our visits the moist morsels of pork aromatic from achiote (and the other ingredients of recado rojo), tangy from bitter orange juice, and herby from the banana leaves. Pickled pink onions were scattered on top.
Another popular Yucatecan pork preparation is poc chuc, cutlets of the meat marinated in sour orange juice, broiled, capped with pickled onion rings, and accompanied by chiltomate. Chéen's chuc brought two tough planks of pork loin further marred by too much raw garlic flavor. The same bulb's overabundance nearly foiled an otherwise tender and terrific recado-rubbed arrachera steak "à la Yucateca." Arrachera is a relatively recent culinary term for the flank cut of meat, first appearing on menus in Mexico in the late Nineties as a means of differentiating it from traditional carne asada, which uses the thinner skirt steak. The meat, I probably don't have to tell you, came capped with pickled onions, and at $11.89, adds up to the most expensive main course; all others are less than $10. Chéen's prices are so reasonable it would be petty to quibble about the extra buck charged for a side of tortillas.
Garlic was again the culprit in ruining the "Mexican" yellow rice that accompanies all entrées; not only is the taste that of raw garlic, but of old raw garlic, like the nasty prepeeled cloves sold in jars (this flavor was evident during all of our visits). At least the other complimentary side dish, "vegetarian refried black beans," possessed no garlic, although the beans were not black, but smoothly puréed regular refried pintos.
Appetizers were seasoned with more delicacy. Especially well balanced was sopa de lima, with two slices of lime contributing the requisite but subtle spike of citrus in a piping-hot, full-flavor chicken broth stocked with onions, green peppers, juicy shreds of chicken, and tortilla strips. Salbutes, a favorite Yucatecan snack, were properly presented here as a pair of fried, homemade, miniature corn tortillas piled with moist chicken strips (cooked pibil-style in banana leaves), lettuce, pickled onions, vinegared cucumber slices, avocado, and tomato. Panuchos are the same as salbutes, except the tortillas are plumped with refried beans. But I'm just noting that for the record; there are no panuchos on premises, nor any sight of another prize of Yucatecan gastronomy, papadzules, which feature chopped hard-boiled eggs wrapped in tortillas and covered with pumpkin seed sauce.