Those who bemoan the evolution of the University City Loop into something "too trendy" -- and you know who you are -- would do well to wander around in a parallel universe that's taken a slightly different path along the space-time continuum. We're speaking, of course, of Maplewood, a similar inner-ring suburb whose "downtown" area was also once referred to as a loop but whose developmental fortunes have lacked the guidance of someone like the great prophet St. Joe Edwards and his U. City disciples.
Nonetheless, the old Maplewood commercial strip is cool in its own right, and it retains an element of quirkiness that has slowly started to dissolve in its U. City counterpart. There's still one of the best old-fashioned personal-service storefront hardware stores in all of St. Louis, Scheidt Hardware, and just off the main drag, Manchester Road, you'll find one of the metropolitan area's few remaining neighborhood bowling alleys, Saratoga Lanes.
After folk-music venue the Focal Point moved into the neighborhood a while back, it only made sense that a new source to feed the bodies of those who came for music to nourish their souls would also pop up. It's called the Maya Café, and although its style is self-described with the trendy-sounding label "pan-Latin cuisine," it's the kind of friendly, inexpensive, mildly anarchic operation you might expect from an owner (Jay Schober) who also works at community-radio station KDHX-FM and a chef (Michael Finney) who worked in a similar populist style at the Broadway Oyster Bar.
The interior, designed by local artist Bill Christman, is part Latin American, part '60s throwback, with red and yellow walls decorated with, among other things, loomwork and an unusual cross comprising Time covers featuring John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Indira Gandhi and a type-only cover asking, "Is God Dead?" Six fairly tightly packed-together tables, dressed with overlaid red and black cloths, occupy one side, with a bar and several more tables on the other.
Although the Maya Café had been open only a couple of months on our first visit, the menu was already undergoing tweaking, resulting in the full-sized menus' being replaced with the tiny type of the carryout menus and some subsequent grumbling by patrons who hadn't brought their magnifying glasses with them.
For at least one adjoining table, this was quickly remedied by a waitress' actually reading the menu out loud to the patrons, one example of many that we witnessed of the "go with the flow" manner of service at Maya Café. Several times during our meals, we were tag-teamed by more than one server to get our food out as quickly as possible; conversely, various orders from the same course arrived at random intervals, and when we entered the restaurant on another visit we were told to seat ourselves at the remaining open table -- which would have been fine, except that the table only had one chair.
Still, most of these shortcomings were forgivable, especially when one of our checks came in at about 25 bucks. For that meal, we started with two mushroom caps stuffed with spicy chorizo, followed by a simple but filling order of four tacos stuffed with shredded beef, lettuce and white cheese, topped with rectangular wedges of tomato; and a full-bodied pork "pepper pot" stew, a hearty serving of cubed pork tenderloin with a jalapeño-fired, paste-thick white-wine-and-garlic sauce, served over a huge bed of white rice. We had an order of sopaipilla -- honeyed crisps with a scoop of vanilla ice cream -- for dessert and even had a considerable amount of food to take home.
For our other meal, we tried the more elaborate entrées but started by testing the guacamole and the signature Maya "napalm" wings. The guacamole was well made, slightly coarse with noticeable but not overwhelming added flavors of lime and onion. The wings -- just the drumstick portions, breaded -- weren't as fiery as the "napalm" (flaming jellied gasoline, most closely associated with the Vietnam War) designation might indicate, but they did provide a wonderful flavor mix, with just a dab of jalapeño relish over a honey glaze on one side of each drumette.
The entrees were a stuffed beef fillet -- on the menu on the first visit and an off-the-menu special on the second -- and a duck breast simultaneously described as grilled and baked but leaning much more toward the latter. The fillet was the more successful of the two, a 10-ounce portion containing a pocket of Manchego (a Spanish sheep's-milk cheese) and toothpick-size slivers of prosciutto. The duck breast was fine, cooked all the way through yet still moist, as opposed to the trendy but often risky practice of serving it medium to medium-rare. The accompanying "wild mushroom flan" on the side, though, picked up way too harsh a flavor, tasting a bit like alcohol that hadn't been cooked out enough, perhaps from the Calvados (apple brandy) used in cooking the duck.
The other difficulty with these more involved entrées is that they were both served with saffron rice and grilled asparagus. Both sides were well prepared (the rice was especially aromatic), but the policy of serving entrées with a choice of two side dishes translates into too many options and too much food. (If you're an olive lover, however, be sure to try the olive salad; it's quite large and includes a diverse selection of olive varieties.)
On our first visit, only the sopaipilla was available for dessert, but on the return trip flan had been added. We found the Maya version a bit disappointing, primarily because the caramelization had gone on too long, resulting in way too much bitterness for our taste.
About 13 wines are available, as well as a house-made sangria that was a fine fruity complement to the full-bodied and often spicy dishes, although I would have preferred it colder, perhaps even served over ice, than the (slightly less than room) temperature at which it arrived.
So there are a few flaws in the new Maya Café, but the values on the menu outweigh most of them, and the Bohemian atmosphere (Hispanic music on one visit, an old Steve Miller album on the other, coupled with political discussions at adjoining tables) certainly keeps things lively. Los Mayas unidos jamas seran vencidos!