"De sus amigos de 'Taco Loco,'" reads the sign over the storefront window at Maya Grill. The Mexican restaurant opened six months ago on West Palm Drive in Florida City, but residents here have long been relishing Maya's tacos, which were formerly sold from a Taco Loco trailer in various vacant lots around the neighborhood. I was never aware of that tacqueria on wheels and wouldn't have known about Maya Grill, either, had Redland reader J.L. not e-mailed me with a headsup. I am sometimes dismissive of such missives owing to motivational suspicions, but the tone seemed sincere: "My reason for promoting this place is pure greed. I want to see them succeed and prosper so that I may continue to get my Taco Loco fix."
J.L. steered me specifically toward the carnitas taco, prepared exclusively on Saturdays and Sundays. Good choice. The shreds of slow-cooked-then-high-heat-roasted pork boasted the characteristic soft/crunchy carnitas texture and were imbued with the sort of full flavor that makes grilled tenderloins and chops blush with envy. Tortillas here are handmade, the soft corn variety with that elusive maize/slaked lime aroma known to permeate the thick morning air of Mexican villages.
Tacos cost $1.59 apiece, so you will be tempted to try quite a few. Other alluring stuffers include tender morsels of beef cheek or tongue, grilled skirt steak, fried pork chunks, and another weekend-only offering: chewy chubs of fried pork stomach (buche) that, quite frankly, didn't look or taste all that different from the carnitas. At least not before individualizing each taco via selections from an "all-you-can-eat" salsa bar. Few folks could eat much of the bright green, tear-inducing salsa verde. Three types of only slightly less spicy salsa rojas are rendered as well (one of which is thickened with puréed avocados), along with lime wedges, radish slices, chopped onions, and cilantro. A gentle tomato/onion/serrano-chili/cilantro pico de gallo (what most gringos know as "salsa") is brought to the table beside a basket of brittle bright yellow tortilla chips.
Maya Grill: 941 W. Palm Dr., Florida City; 305-245-7271. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner Tuesday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday.
Owner Roberto Dabalof's transition from van man to restaurateur has been dramatic: Maya Grill's dining room is clean, bright, spacious, and cheery, with south-of-the-border posters and appointments lending it ethnic charm. Waiters likewise contribute to the sunny environment — an exceptionally amiable and accommodating crew (at least those who served us) that spoke fluent English. And the menu is no longer limited to tacos.
Upon entering Maya Grill, our eyes were instantly drawn to a cooler with "Michoacán" written on the side in blue lettering. Inside were a dozen flavors of frozen fruit popsicles that are renowned in the namesake region but have also proven to be a reliable refreshment for my constant companion and me through various trips across the Yucatán. Pineapple, watermelon, strawberry, coconut — take your pick, it's all delicious. Most folks wait until after their meal to try them, but I think they make a swell intermezzo.
Maya's version of sopes — a traditional small, thick, fluffy, pinched-rim tortilla — comes capped with refried beans, shredded lettuce, crumbled queso blanco, sour cream, pico de gallo, and choice of protein. We selected al pastor, meaty niblets of moist, adobo-marinated pork perked with pineapple, onion, and cilantro. The beefy carne asada sope was also fresh and juicy, but if you prefer your puffy tortilla stuffed rather than topped, go with the gorditas.
There are plenty of familiar favorites on hand, including quesadillas, enchiladas, tostadas, flautas, fajitas, and burritos, the last loaded with rice, beans, melted cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, and choice of beef, pork, or chicken (with a side of wide hand-cut fries, all for $7.50). We likewise enjoyed a big, fat poblano pepper fried in egg batter and oozing with melted Oaxaca cheese (chile relleno), and a soft, custardy corn tamale with mildly spiced picadillo of minced chicken within.
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Those with small-town tastes can cling to guns, religion ... I mean Buffalo-style chicken wings and grilled chicken breasts, pork chops, or steak, each presented on a sizzling platter and topped with bacon, bell peppers, onions, and melted cheese. A slender T-bone is flavorfully marinated, imbued with char-broiled taste, and fortified with roasted potatoes and refried pinto beans of medium consistency and lovely lardy flavor. At $13.95, the steak is second highest price to a $17.95 mar y tierra combo plate piled with tilapia, shrimp, steak, chicken, pork chop, avocado slices, pepino salad, and a mini quesadilla of shrimp and cheese. Other main courses are accompanied by refried beans and fluffy, steamy-hot pale yellow rice.
The kitchen crew proved equally adept at the art of frying — as evidenced by a neatly breaded, cleanly cooked skirt steak Milanesa, and a similarly crisp rendition of fried tilapia. There are tortas, too, with fillers such as fried pork, grilled sausage, and breaded skirt steak come sandwiched in crusty bollito bread.
Glasses of horchata — or as I like to call it, "liquid rice pudding on the rocks" — get refilled. I know of no other Mexican restaurant that offers this freebie, and if Maya's customers drink as much of it as I did, the deal probably won't last long. Sorry. Other thirst quenchers include various fruity flavors of Mexican sodas (jarritos), six popular Mex beers, sangria, and a zesty carbonated apple cider drink.
As stated, I regrettably can't claim to have been un amigo de Taco Loco. But Maya Grill and I have just started what I hope will be a long and fruitful relationship — meaning many long drives and fruit-filled ice pops.