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Is the Best Mexican Food in Minneapolis Hiding in an Unassuming Central Avenue Storefront?

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"There is no chef. Just family recipes, and trying very hard." This is what I'm told by Victor Martinez, who runs the wonder that is Maya Cuisine along with his wife, Isela Perez, and a pack of other family members.

But there must be a chef! They're hiding a chef somewhere, because we can taste her presence. She's in the profound beefy richness of the barbacoa, the pineapple zing of the al pastor, the thunderous smoke of the tinga; she's most definitely in all of the masa creations — tamales, huaraches, sopes, and tortillas, each made by hand, most in front of your eyes.

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By now it's an old story. A husband and a wife and some cousins and some in-laws all emigrate from Mexico to the United States. They have big, expansive dreams about the land of milk and honey. But they come and they find that streets are not lined with gold, nor honey nor milk. But that does not stop this family from working hard — very, very hard. Which is the other thing you can taste in this cuisine. There may not be a chef, but there is a lot of work.

Chef/not-chef Martinez has only held one other professional cooking position, five years at a local catering outfit where he became something of a Mexican cuisine specialist for the company: comparing, contrasting, making things again and again until they were just so. "Then we would say: 'That's the one.'" That's something you could say about most of the dishes at Maya. That's the one.

But where did he learn, at first?

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"Spending a lot of time with all of the Latina women in the kitchen. Latin women make food every day and all day long. We are not expected to go to the restaurant very often?" (He speaks in this lilting cadence, like every moment he's asking permission to tell you something.) So this is good news for us: The result of him staying out of the restaurant very often is that we are inspired to go to his — very, very often.

Nothing ever comes out of a container at Maya — they cook about 90 percent of the menu from scratch every day. "It's hard," says Victor. "Especially in the winter. But our customers can taste it. And they appreciate it."

We do indeed. Pico de gallo is made with tomatoes that are actually red and actually ripe, even in winter. There are so many varieties of salsa that it is difficult to choose, and you are inspired to buy more tacos just to try them all: an Easter-egg-green tomatillo one, an orange one with the nutty complexity of pepitas for the base, a red one with a donkey kick of power. And they do not dole these out by the thimbleful. The salsa bar is yours for the taking. The same goes for guacamole — $2 gets you a portion that has you ready to bust out your calculator. With the price of avocados these days, how the heck do they do it? Anyway, garnish your tacos how you see fit. This is a place of abundance, not lined with milk and honey but instead spices and salsas.

When you walk into Maya, a cornucopia of food is spread out before you, like Chipotle went to college and came back all refined and legit and ready to do real work for people who know what real work looks like. There's a menu overhead, but you can largely ignore it (unless you're concerned about pricing, which you shouldn't be, because every single thing rings in under 10 dollars). The food itself is the true menu. What's looking particularly unctuous, fresh, fragrant, and glorious? Well, it all is, and it can be agonizing to choose.

There's not just one kind of chicken, there are three: mild, medium, and hot, and they're all wonderful. There is the above mentioned barbacoa, probably the best in town, and the al pastor, mouthwatering and dripping with real pineapple, and Yucatan-style cochinita pibil where pork is roasted in banana leaf, rendering it so moist and locking in so much flavor you'll have no use for any other pig roast again.

There are hulking chiles rellenos, which some people order piled high with meat and other fillings and then, wait for it... wrap into a burrito! There are at least a half dozen more meat options from chorizo to lengua, and over a half dozen ways in which to enjoy them: tacos, quesadillas, tamales, tostadas, salads, burritos, huaraches, and tortas.

A word on the tortas: It's almost a heartache not to order the masa preparations, made from scratch and mostly to order. But once barbacoa or al pastor gets tucked inside a squishy white bun, crackling and flaky on the outside, and all manner of sauce and salsa and onion and cilantro is absorbed into the bread, it's hard to know how to ever go back. These are the difficult choices, people.

If you order a huarache or a sope, they will say to you: "That will be about six minutes? Is that okay?" As if six minutes is too long to wait for something that will gnaw away at your brain for the next four days until you cave and make the trek for another. The tamales are the best we've ever had: silky smooth without a hint of the frustrating dryness that plagues many cornhusk-wrapped tamales, and singing with spice and flavor within.

In back, there is a cute little cave-like bar that specializes in two-for-one, not-from-scratch margaritas and Mexican boxing on the TV. The vinyl booths are well worn, the lights are low, the service is welcoming. It's a wonderful place. This summer they will be adding table service in the expansive and currently mostly underutilized dining room. There's also a big old dance floor. No live music yet either, but they're working on it.

Other things to know about Maya: They have a Sunday buffet. A Mexican buffet. Just let that information settle in for a bit. They are attempting to go green so that all of their disposables will be compostable and recyclable by summer. They serve pozole, menudo, lengua, flan, and tres leches cake if your cravings go traditional. They cater large and small events.

The Maya culture was once the most developed civilization in the ancient Americas. They were astute at writing, art, architecture, math, and astronomy when much of the rest of the world was still scratching its head in confusion. This little restaurant is living up to its name. There's almost nothing it can't do.

Check out more photos from Maya Cuisine.

Maya Restaurant and Bar 1840 Central Ave. NE Mpls. 612-789-0775 mayacuisineusa.com

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