Yucatecan or Leave It
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 most other local Mexican joints.
15400 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami; 305-956-2808
Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Saturday noon to 11:00 p.m., Sunday noon to 8:00 p.m.
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.
However, Chéen does proffer darn good tacos al pastor, a trio of soft corn tortillas stuffed with grilled nubs of infatuatingly fatty pork, subtly and invisibly sweetened with pineapple and onions. Refried beans, salsa verde, and guacamole (apparently prepared from frozen pulp) were presented on the side, but the pork and corn flavors are perfect as is. A main course of chicken flautas ("flutes") were not nearly as satisfying, the white breast meat rolled within fried tortillas proving dry and tasteless.
While it's true that Yucatecan cuisine isn't especially fiery, a bowl of incendiary habañero chili sauce is customarily set on the dining table. Not so at Chéen, where there is nary a chili pepper in sight excepting jalapeño slices on the nachos, and an infusion of smoky chipotles in the caesar salad dressing. Other faux-Mex salads include a fajita-on-greens with ranch dressing, and "Tulum chicken salad," named after a beautiful Yucatecan coastal town, which brings a toss of beans, corn, tomatoes, and cheese in cilantro peanut vinaigrette not Mayan, but not bad.
Chéen-huyae doesn't plate the sort of salad a working-class Yucatecan would partake of, but attention is paid to re-creating beer specialties such as chelada (a brewski bumped with lemon and coarse salt), and michelada, a spicy elixir that here is flavored with lime, coarse salt, soy sauce, and Tabasco, but usually contains Worcestershire and Maggi seasoning as well. If you go with a michelada, best to choose a dark beer such as Negra Modelo as the base.
Margaritas aren't nearly as authentic, those offered being fruity, wine-based affairs. And Mexicans would sooner make a margarita without tequila than they would use canned fruit in a white peach sangria, as Chéen does. Still, the latter beverage's peachy, cinnamon sweetness was undeniably refreshing, as was a glass of cool, rice pudding-flavor horchata, which is why it is favored by those living close to the equator.
Chéen was cleaned out of all three listed desserts flan, rice pudding, and manjar blanco, a sort of dulce de leche cake. Sad-sack substitutes were cheesecake, Snickers cheesecake, and banana chimichangas, whose fruit was deep-fried in tortilla wrapping and gilded with cinnamon powder and chocolate syrup. Such Americanized concoctions would no doubt delight the type of unadventuresome tourists who flock to Cancún, and likely evoke a similarly positive reaction from unadventuresome diners in North Miami too. Chéen-huyae definitely succeeds as an inexpensive neighborhood spot for tasty, mildly sanitized Mexican-Yucatecan food, but I just wish "only here" translated to "only a little more ambition."
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