The food. The drinks. The events. The patio. Flair sizzles at Maya del Sol, the Latin fusion restaurant in the old Vivaldi space on Oak Park Avenue.
The food – dishes rooted in the Yucatan, Cuba, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina – comes from Ruben Beltran, an executive chef who is a Rick Bayless alum, and Armando Gonzalez (right), the chef de cuisine whose résumé includes Mas in Wicker Park and Park Grill at Millennium Park. Maya’s chefs playfully work such specialty extras as yucca, jicama, plantains and coconut milk into choices on dinner and brunch menus that are meant to be welcoming for everyone.
Meat lovers not game enough for Cuban beef stew atop a Colombian corn cake, yucca fries on the side, have the option of a Kobe beef cheeseburger (shown by Chef Armando) with french fries and just a hint of Latin flavor in a smoky chipotle mayonnaise dressing. Vegetarians can indulge in the Ecuadorian favorite of Calabaza Rellena (above): a whole acorn squash open and stuffed with a corn-sauce mix of arborio rice, wild mushrooms, yucca and asparagus. Kids can order flautas, a taquito option that grown-up diners don’t see on the bigger menus. The chefs ask that vegans call ahead.
Drinks at Maya del Sol rival the food in innovative splashes of Central America and South America. Over-the-top cocktail garnishes can include a pickle, a cube of ham or a shrimp. Rims aren’t just sugar or salt; they’re cinnamon sugar or chili salt. Along with margaritas named for Mayan gods and mojitos named for Maya barkeeps are such Latin requisites as caipirinha, the Brazilian standard, and Pisco sour, a fave in Peru and Chile.
Lesser-known Latin drinks also stir up spice at Maya’s two bars. Mangaso is a tequila, rum and mango-puree translation of the dried chili-seasoned mango strips sold by street vendors throughout Latin America. Mexico’s cinnamony rice milk, horchata, mixed with rum and a vanilla liqueur from Spain, turns into the innocent-yet-adult Horchatini. Friday nights after 5:30 p.m., bartenders share their experiments with drinkers and diners alike. Their wit is above question. This is the team that for Election Day came up with the Red Maverick and the Obama Samba.
Events at Maya, like the Fiesta Friday libation lab, reflect a sense of fun and nods to the times. Every Tuesday, you can take a free salsa class with regionally known dance teacher Laura Riebock. Every Friday afternoon, from 4 to 6 p.m., teachers get a 20 percent break on their tab. On one summer evening last year, you could take a class called How to Make the Perfect Margarita. On tax day this year, the dinner tab was Pay What You Think Is Fair.
On the patio, Maya’s biggest channeling of points south, a gas-burning firepit anchors a dining area that has a fully stocked 17-stool bar and table seating for 100. In this part of the restaurant, servers check on you for more than food and drink. If you report so much as a chill, you’ve got your choice of having your chair moved up to the firepit, being brought a blanket, or both. Specialty dining, indeed.
-Kate Pancero and Helen Karakoudas
This is the restaurant that I take friends and family to for a great meal within walking distance of where I live. The walk down Harrison St. is fascinating and the reward is a wonderful dinner. The scallops are especially luscious, almost equaling the crab cakes. I’ve had the duck and the pork and recommend them highly. This is a wonderful addition to the arts district!
MLE, Oak Park
Marion Street Cheese Market
If you enjoy food beautiful both in flavor and presentation, go here. Their menu is fresh and inventive. I love the wine buyer. She’s never misguided me with a wine purchase, and she does a great job of finding great bottles at the lower end of the price range as well as the high. Perfect place for a slow weekend lunch.
Tim, Oak Park