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The exposed ductwork snaking its way through the cavernous main and side rooms, for instance, owes less to high-tech artifice than it does to simple necessity. There's a lot of bare wall space to stare at, too, intermittently enlivened by a carved head, hanging serapes and artificial plants.
If this restaurant were in Scottsdale, the lighting would be called "subdued." Here, it's simply low wattage, but it adds to the charm. El Maya looks like the kind of place that would attract Bogart and his fellow prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The food mimics the decor: It's pretty basic and completely unpretentious. But it's also solid, hearty and cheap.
6840 N. 35th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85017-1037
Region: West Phoenix
We proved Ambrose Bierce's point that experience is nothing more than the repetition of past follies by again wolfing down nachos and margaritas. El Maya's nachos are as stripped down as a bottom-of-the-line Yugo: fresh chips glued together with cheese, moistened with thin, hot salsa constantly replenished by an on-the-ball busboy. Perhaps there's some clinic to help addicts break the take-a-sip-of-margarita, munch-a-handful-of-nachos cycle. Only I'm not sure I'm want to be cured yet.
Unlike Casa Carmen, dinners here come with soup or salad. The cup of alb¢ndigas soup featured rice, onion, carrot, cilantro and a squishy meatball in flavorful tomato broth. The salad, a cold plate of iceberg lettuce in a puddle of bottled dressing, should have been turned back at the border.
El Maya's menu tiptoes a bit beyond the usual fare. It temptingly offers chicken mole, for example. Unfortunately, the dish is apparently easier to print up than prepare, because it wasn't available the night we were there.
However, the kitchen could turn out Mexican-style halibut, and did it surprisingly well. The good-size slab of fish came grilled to flaky perfection, slathered with a tomato and chile salsa. Accompanied by some tasty short-grain Mexican rice, it's a good choice for those who can't face too much lard-laden Sonoran fare.
So is the fajitas platter, a dish that tasted a lot better than it looked. As at Casa Carmen, a large plate, not a sizzling gringo skillet, bore the insipid-looking mix of chicken and beef, onions, green pepper and tomato wedges. But the meat was pleasingly tender with a crispy grilled edge. And a terrific side of guacamole perked everything up.
El Maya does a creditable job, too, with the usual suspects of Mexican restaurants. The placemat boasts about the homemade tamales, and with reason. I adore green corn tamales, and the soft and spongy specimen here has a powerful corn fragrance. Equally good was the cheese enchilada--crisply cooked, and zipped up with lots of green onion.
The chile relleno, though, seemed strictly routine. A mild Anaheim chile came buried in tons of cheese and dipped in enough egg to make a Denver omelet. It's gloppy and tasteless, a combination likely to inspire diners to make a run from the border.
No matter how stuffed, I can always manage to down some flan for dessert. Consuming El Maya's version was more a pleasure than a duty. It's smooth-textured and incredibly sweet, wonderful with strong coffee.
But no coffee could rescue the dense, fruit-stuffed, over-the-hill sopaipilla. It's as big as a discus, and about as appetizing. And the unpleasantness is compounded by a mountain of off-putting whipped cream.
Sometimes, the comforting security of familiar food is just the boost you need to escape the holiday blahs. El Maya's worth a shot. After all, it's cheaper than therapy, and considerably more filling.