By Joseph Lord
Special to Velocity | September 3, 2009
Louisville suffers no dearth of Latin American food options, at least if you’re in the mood to go casual. I have friends who champion Sol Aztecas and Santa Fe Grill, and those places do make delicious and inexpensive food. El Mundo is the rare restaurant where Louisville’s hipsters and party-party crowd find common ground. And then there’s the glut of small, anonymous Mexican and Mex-Tex restaurants that occupy just about every vacant fast food outlet from New Albany to Shelbyville.
These restaurants — even the classier ones — foster a casual vibe, which is wonderful unless you’re on a date or hoping to show off Louisville’s vibrant fine dining scene to out-of-town friend. In these instances, consider The Mayan Café.
Chef Bruce Ucan’s restaurant has existed off-and-on since 1997, and he’s built a set of followers who’ll gladly pay extra for his splendid dishes and glass of wine over the No. 5, a bottle of beer and limitless chips and salsa. Now, the No. 5 is appealing because it costs just $8.99 — throw in a Negra Modelo or two and you’re bill still won’t top $30. Your date might think you a cheapskate, but there’s a recession, damn it.
It might otherwise take some ordering acrobatics, but two people can have a pleasant experience for $30 at The Mayan Café. My wife and I visited The Mayan Café on a weekday evening, just after the 5.p.m. opening, and the outside tables were taken and the dining room was already starting to fill up. A good sign. We stuck with water to drink — although we probably could’ve worked in wine or beer if we hadn’t been famished.
Scanning the menu, my eyes were drawn instantly to the mayanpan chilaquile ($14) for its price and appetizing description as a “tortilla lasagna,” but I considered pairing a couple of starters for dinner — perhaps the chili relleno ($4) and the empanadas ($5), with black beans and goat cheese. My wife waffled between the vegetable plate ($9) — she’d heard great things about the tok-sel lima beans — or the Mayan burger ($10) and sweet potato fries. She went with the burger and I stuck with my first instinct.
We were pleased with our choices. The chilaquile was an eye-catching dish, a surprisingly hefty portion of tortilla, portabella mushrooms, thin-sliced eggplant, squash and manchego cheese, surrounded by a moat of tomato sauce. The eggplant and squash added a nice zest to the tortilla, and the cheese added a slight creaminess without overwhelming the palate. The tomato sauce was too thin and didn’t provide quite the kick I’d expected, but the sum of the dish was tasty and quite filling.
My wife’s burger was even better. We’re burger fans, and The Mayan Café’s version is an inventive combination of seasoned grass-fed ground beef with baby spinach, pickled onions, tomatoes, feta cheese and cilantro-caper aioli, served on bolillo bread. The burger’s ingredients mixed well, and my wife — whose burger standards are high — was pleased. And her sweet potato fries were crisp and tasty.
The Mayan Café’s dining room is dark and elegant, highlighted by interesting abstract art. With prices like these and a grown-up aesthetic, The Mayan Café is a fine choice for an inexpensive date with Latin American flair. The bill came to $29.44, including a $4 tip for exceptionally friendly service.