When I stepped into Taqueria Maya on a recent Sunday evening, I immediately realized why I have been hearing buzz about the place.
It was packed, and to the left of the door, a table was set up where two women were busily turning out fresh huaraches and sopes. To do so, they took scoops from what looked like a mountain of masa (the corn dough that’s the base of tortillas and many other dishes) and formed them into little paddles and bowls, which were then shuttled to the kitchen nearly as fast as they were made. An eager crowd thronged at the register, and I got in line, feeling like I had arrived a little late to a party. In fact, I had: I went for dinner, but earlier in the day on Sunday the restaurant features mariachi music.
A large, well-lit electronic menu screen makes it easy to see Taqueria Maya’s wide range of choices, but I already knew what I wanted: the huaraches being made a few feet from me.
It took a while to get our order – as I said, it was busy – but once my huaraches arrived, the flat, toothsome paddles of masa, with their toasty corn flavor and faint crunch at the edges, were worth the wait. They come topped with a choice of meats – in my case, tender, beefy lengua (tongue) and pork al pastor (BBQ-style, with a piquant marinade featuring chile ancho and pineapple) salsa, lettuce and a drizzle of crema.
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The plate also featured beans and rice, as per usual at most Mexican restaurants, but with a difference. The refried beans here are not the usual pallid, bland smear on a plate, but chunky with whole beans, chestnut-colored and richly flavored with smoky notes of chile de arbol and chipotle. I would happily eat a bowl of the beans all by themselves – and that’s saying something for an item that is forgettable at most restaurants. That said, I wouldn’t want to miss out on the other entrees.
Crispy tacos were not fully crispy. Instead of crunchy deep-fried shells, Taqueria Maya uses griddled tortillas with blistered spots and full of fresh flavor. Gooey cheese is balanced by savory meat (the carnitas had a lip-smacking pork flavor) and cool lettuce, included only in the crispy tacos. The soft tacos are the more traditional style with just a sprinkling of onions and cilantro. Taqueria Maya’s sensibility is true to its northern Mexican roots, but as manager Daniel Maya told me, they’ve included a number of California-friendly dishes and garnishes, from that lettuce to overstuffed burritos and salad bowls.
The chile verde was some of the best I’ve found, with the green tang of tomatillos and the full spark of green chiles evening out the richness of the pork. Similarly, the chile colorado was smoky, complex, yet cleanly flavored. The chile relleno – a dish that can often be disappointingly bland and greasy – was well made too, rich with cheese and chile and smothered in zingy sauce.
On each of my visits to Taqueria Maya, I wished I would have come in sooner, because I wanted to try more dishes than I had room for. (I’m coming back for the molcajete – a bubbling cauldron of meat I saw other patrons enjoying – just as soon as I can rustle up 10 or so like-minded friends.)
Even if you haven’t been to the restaurant, you’ve probably seen it if you frequent Broadway – probably the most diverse street in Sacramento in terms of cuisine. Taqueria Maya stands out for its odd architecture, featuring a vertiginous roof more often associated with Nordic ski lodges than with taquerias and one of those mid-century rock walls that reminds one of the Flintstones and down-at-heel roller rinks.
A web page devoted entirely to the architecture and history of ’60s-era A-frame restaurant chains (there really is something on the internet for everyone) posits that this particular building might originally have been built as a Lodge Coffee Shop, though I couldn’t confirm the hypothesis. (Maya, the manager, said an elderly couple told him they used to frequent the restaurant in its original incarnation as a pancake house.) The Maya family has cleverly used that steep-pitched red roof to add to their signage, painting “tortillas hechas a mano,” “menudo” and other advertisements on the side. Prior to becoming Taqueria Maya, the space housed Camino Real Restaurant.
The whole effect of the restaurant is one of haphazard charm, amplified when you step inside to find fresco paintings in between the roof beams, TVs showing soccer and a patio for warmer weather. The outdoor space, looking out on Broadway but fenced in, has a gritty charm – until darkness falls and the over-bright fluorescent lights come on; they feel more operating-room than restaurant.
The extended Maya family – originally from Guanajuato, Mexico – took over the space in 2012, and has been building the business since then. It was a slow start, according to Maya, but business picked up because of word of mouth and social media. The taqueria’s Instagram feed offers colorful, overflowing plates of food balanced by snaps of the Mayas’ original open-air adobe restaurant in Guanajuato or an aunt making tortillas at the restaurant. (Caption: “You know it’s the weekend when Doña Aurora is scratchin’ disc.”)
The Mayas still use recipes from family matriarchs Guadalupe Maya (Daniel’s grandmother, who makes both mole and chile verde at the restaurant to this day) and her mother Pachita Alfaro.
The Maya family also operates a taco truck, opened 19 years ago, and offers party trays for catering. Neither of those are included in this review – though I’m tucking away the knowledge that I can get a tray of that chile verde to serve 50 for future party reference.
Speaking of parties, don’t overlook the drinks menu: My paloma came in a glass so big it could have accommodated a very happy goldfish, with rocks of salt on the rim and a grapefruit/tequila tang. Also on offer are margaritas, gigantic micheladas and plenty of frosty beers. The glasses are well chilled, and when I say well chilled, I mean Arctic levels: One of the irresistible juice drinks I ordered, the Tropical (a not-too-sweet mix of pineapple, banana, apple and orange) partially froze to the glass.
About those juices: They’re made to order, so they take some time, but they’re well worth a wait. The Hawaiian and the Tropical are closer to smoothies. I also loved the thinner mixed fruit and vegetable juices, like the tart Jugo de Nopal (with cactus, parsley, lemon and grapefruit) and the El Gato Volador, which promised carrot, apple, celery and, oddly, granola. They were out of the latter on my visit, but it’s usually sprinkled over the top. The rich, vegetal yet sweet orange-colored drink was excellent without it, though I couldn’t figure out how it resembled a flying cat.
There were a few missteps. A ceviche and shrimp tostada tasted overly salty, and it lacked any detectable shrimp, just the fish, even though my receipt showed that “camarón” was included in the order. On another visit, the problem was reversed: A mixed seafood cocktail was supposed to contain shrimp and octopus, but it lacked any octopus. The shrimp it did have, however, was juicy and sweet, a good contrast to the zesty tomato-juice base.
The kitchen also missed a few special requests. One of my dining companions was extra sensitive to heat. He asked about spice levels and for salsa to be left off his orders, but the salsa and heat were included. Consider his experience a cautionary tale: All of Taqueria Maya’s salsas – there are at least five types available next to the chips – pack a punch, as does quite a bit of the fare. If you can’t stand the heat, this may not be the kitchen for you, though mild dishes like the flautas and carnitas tacos are a safe bet.
Located by the 50-99 interchange, Taqueria Maya sits almost precisely at the crossroads where Sacramento’s central-city core gives way to its fanned-out outlying neighborhoods. Fittingly, the restaurant attracts a cross-section of Sacramento (including a healthy smattering of some of our city’s better-known restaurateurs). Its honest, delicious cooking deserves the crowds. If you’re like me, and you’ve been driving by without stopping in, it might be time to change that before you’re any later to the party.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
2700 Broadway, 916-457-7208
Hours: 9 a.m.-8:45 p.m. daily
Beverage options: Full bar with beer on tap and specialty cocktails (margaritas, palomas), plus a fresh juice bar.
Vegetarian friendly: Meat and seafood predominate, but dishes like chiles rellenos give vegetarians a few choices. The beans are vegetarian.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Can be loud, especially near the counter, when the restaurant is busy, but conversation remains possible.
Ambiance: Bustling and ultra-casual, Taqueria Maya makes the most of its quirky, sprawling, retro A-frame building with bright décor and appealing murals, plus a patio.
A busy, happy gathering place (just) on the grid for well-executed Mexican food that’s a cut above the average taqueria. Offering everything from simple tacos up to hearty plates of seafood, plus excellent fresh juices, Taqueria Maya is equally suited to quick workday lunch or a big Sunday dinner with the family.
Cooked with care from family recipes, the food at Taqueria Maya offers freshness, integrity and plenty of heat. There were many hits, among them bright chile verde, toasty huaraches, and tender lengua. Even the beans that come on the side of most plates, a pale afterthought at many restaurants, are richly savory here.
Service is straightforward: Line up at the counter that’s directly in front of you upon entry and state your desires. Dishes can be slow to arrive, however, and we experienced occasional mix-ups and oversights.
The value is hard to beat: Entrees hover in the $9-14 range for big, filling plates of well-prepared, flavorful food. Feeling skint? A couple of tacos will fill you up for much less.