BY STEPHEN HACKER | LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE | September 03, 2007
When I called Bruce Ucan, chef-owner of the Mayan Cafe, after visiting his new East Market Street restaurant, one of the first things he told me was that, early in his career, “I didn’t like cooking.” Ucan started working in resort kitchens near Cancun “because jobs in Mexicoare hard to come by. I didn’t like the kitchen at the beginning, but without knowing it, I was learning something.” He toiled under French, German and Spanish chefs, then left the kitchens of Cancun to come to Americaand work in construction.
Fortunately for Louisville, Ucan later realized that food was his true calling. He operated Mayan Gypsy here for years and won a loyal following. Now his new venture is one of the most intriguing restaurants in town.
Mayan Cafe is a small space with sky-blue walls. It feels bright and airy during lunch hours and takes on a different feel for dinner, when wine glasses appear on the tables and music comes over the sound system. I think Mayan Cafe is “Mexican” only because that’s where Ucan’s palate happened to arrive on Earth; in reality, he’s an exceptional example of how taste trumps territory. He brings Yucatan seasonings and sensibilities to a world of ingredients, with an original flair that can’t be consigned to any “ethnic” category.
“A regular customer of mine went to Cancun,” said Ucan. “He told me he went everywhere and he couldn’t get food like mine. I told him, ‘You can’t find it; it’s an idea I’ve created. I take from the Yucatan, and I take from other places. It’s my ideas, the flavors that are important to me.”
Case in point: one of my favorite side dishes, roasted lima beans with sesame oil and lime (served as Tok-Cel at the Gypsy). I always assumed it was a Mayan dish — until Ucan told me that limas aren’t a Yucatan ingredient. The roasting of beans in a metal barrel, however, is a technique of favor in his part of Mexico, so he adapted it by heating the big green ones with sesame oil and then roasting them a bit. And to great effect — they’re black-flecked bright green bursts of flavor, with smoke, citrus and sesame working in wonderful balance.
Mayan Cafe’s chili relleno ($4), a juicy, dark poblano chile stuffed with a chunky paste of chorizo, corn, potatoes and manchego cheese, is pan-seared, not fried in egg batter like “traditional” Mexican versions. Ucan believes “the fried flour and egg take over the chile. I don’t want you to taste fried, I want to taste chile.” I concur: The unbreaded pepper’s flavor definitely stands out against the mild spice and light cream sauce. A Mayapan chilaquile ($13) was different than the heavy cream versions I’ve had in other “Mexican” restaurants — its light sauce served as background to the flavors of portobello, asparagus and masa (although I could have done without the zucchini).
Lunch offerings included my huevos Motulenos ($9), with layers of fried tortilla, black beans, chorizo and plantains that swam in a tomato sauce that, while spicy, still didn’t overpower the dish’s delicately fried eggs. A gigantic sandwich of oven-roasted pork ($8) had a cayenne sauce that didn’t linger or burn, but simply enhanced the tender shreds of meat.
I loved the Cactus Salad with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and citrus vinaigrette ($5, at both lunch and dinner). The cactus had an okra-esque quality, exploring that little-known boundary between crunchy and slippery. Ucan said, “When we cooked the cactus in water, it became slippery; when we broiled it, it became dry. Finally, I found that putting it on the grill and searing it with olive oil lets the cactus keep its own juice and gets rid of the slimy at the
For my money, the chef’s piece de resistance could well be his marvelous roasted leg of lamb ($15). The smoky, meltingly soft lamb came with a sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce, an idea Ucan says came to him “when we were serving duck and thought it would work well with lamb.” To me, it’s an inspired form of barbecue. (Owensboro residents may need to watch for East Market Street as a new mecca of mutton.) But, please, Mayan Cafe, why not provide a few tortillas next time to sop up the excess sauce?
Desserts were less impressive. My Chocolate Volcano ($6) was a little grainy, and while my banana churro with chocolate sauce ($5) was better, it was too sweet and a bit mushy. The accompanying ice creams (mango and banana) were more memorable.
“I don’t want an authentic place; I want a good place,” said Ucan. His Mayan Cafe is authentic, all right — authentically good.
If You Go
Mayan Cafe, 813 E. Market Street, 566-0651. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.