written by: Lindsey Stewart McClave
Nov 2, 2017
“The farm-to-table restaurant concept has been on trend in Louisville – and beyond – for some time. You’ll see the Kentucky Proud logo gracing many a menu in the city, restaurants boasting that they cook seasonally and support our local farmers.
It is a noble and, in my view, critical aspect of an eatery’s mission statement, however, it is so often not actually expressed on diners’ plates. There are a number of reasons why these good intentions do not always translate. Embracing locally-sourced and sustainably-raised meats and vegetables is not as simple a task as it may seem.
But long before eating local was a hashtag, Chef Bruce Ucán was simply cooking food in the way he knew best – calling on his Mayan heritage as a platform for displaying the bounty of the land that surrounded him. In business in one shape or form for over 20 years, Mayan Café is one of the few Louisville restaurants that has been practicing what they preach since day one.
Mayan Café has not only been a pioneer in the Louisville farm-to-table movement but also in embracing East Market Street well before it was coined NuLu.
The small dining room is painted the color of cocoa, reminiscent of the mole sauce accompanying select dishes. Large photos of daily life in the Yucatan Peninsula hang on the walls, setting the stage for a menu that is steeped in Mayan tradition – including the act of sourcing ingredients from the surrounding region. That just happens to be Kentucky, in Ucán’s case.
This practice begins with the cocktail list, which includes the “don’t worry about it” cocktail ($9), the description noting “no seriously, don’t worry about it, it’s got Woodford.” When coaxed, our server did give away two of the secret components of this spirit forward cocktail – vanilla and ginger liqueurs. The blood orange margarita ($11) offers a bright start to the menu. It boasts generous citrus notes and the tartness of this drink is balanced by agave.
The homey nature of Mayan Café’s cuisine does not mean presentation is sacrificed. On the contrary, every advantage is taken with the vegetables at hand, making for plates that bear a striking pose.
The scallop ceviche starter ($13) is a perfect example of this artfulness. Slices of wild-caught scallops are dressed in a vibrant poblano vinaigrette and adorned with charred kernels of corn, crispy fried tortilla matchsticks, ribbons of raw kale, and paper thin slices of peppery black radish. I especially enjoyed the burst of freshness on hand courtesy of citrus segments.
The daily salbutes ($8 for two at dinner, $10 for three at lunch) rotate nightly, with a few select compilations making a regular appearance on the lunch menu. Set atop fluffy homemade corn tortillas, the grilled cactus is my favorite topping of the bunch. The garnish of both crispy and raw kale shavings are also a great textural touch. The accompanying jalapeno sauce is fiery perfection.
I’ve long been a fan of the burger at Mayan Cafe ($13). The grassfed beef is made that much more enjoyable by a dollop of cayenne aioli. The chicken entree ($22) was a new and happy find during a recent dinner outing. The chicken thighs were pan-seared and paired with a beautifully complex salsa negra and a mince of jicama and pickled onion.
However, we found the Veracruz chocolate mole sauce accompanying the duck entree ($25) to be less successful. The duck skin was under-rendered and tending toward the tough side while the rich mole and starchy plantains were in need of an acidic element to brighten up the dish.
I tend to adore Mayan Café most when they show me just how amazing vegetables can be. Not that I needed reminding, but the al dente coins of potato, caramelized cabbage, and the medley of grilled peppers in the vegetarian burrito ($13/dinner, $12/lunch) exemplify all the good that can come from embracing these humble vegetables for what they are. A tomatillo sauce boasting roasted notes and a sunny-side-up egg top off this delicious and decadent plate.
While the chocolate avocado mousse in the chocolate on chocolate dessert ($8) was a miss for me, the desserts at Mayan Café are not to be overlooked. The bread pudding ($7) steeped in dulce de leche and paired with pineapple gelato is particularly interesting and the churros ($7), with mango-papaya purée and chocolate chili sauce, are fried and sugar encrusted – just as one would hope.
It is safe to say that Louisville’s dining landscape would simply not be the same without pioneers like Chef Ucán, who has helped build the bridge between our farmers and our restaurants.
Here’s hoping we see more chefs embrace the trail.”