Alex Rodriguez de Torres knew by the age of seven that she was destined to be in the restaurant business. Growing up in one of the city's most beloved eateries, Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, it was more than just a calling for her and her brother John Rodriguez — it was their legacy.
That sort of pressure didn't weigh too heavily, though, when the siblings puttered around Hacienda. Alex remembers more important tasks, like folding napkins and begging the harried servers to let her put the doilies on the side plates. Still, all those years of working at the Rock Hill institution got into her system. Hacienda, she admits, is in her blood.
Hacienda's patriarch, Norberto Rodriguez, always wanted his kids to carry on what he had created, but he let them find their way back to the restaurant on their own terms. Alex went to art school in Chicago; John attended Boston's Berklee College of Music. Yet despite their artistic inclinations, they returned to St. Louis six years ago ready to confront their birthright.
Running Hacienda for their father, however, has proved to be only part of that. This July, the siblings branched out with a fast-casual concept, Mayana Mexican Kitchen. They tapped Brian Michaels, a veteran fast-casual chef and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, to serve as executive chef and managing partner, translating Hacienda's recipes for a fast-casual audience — and creating a few of his own. Their hope is to bring their family's brand into the Chipotle-verse with a chain of restaurants across the country, starting with a planned six locations in the St. Louis area.
If their freshman effort is any indication, they are well on their way. For their first Mayana location, the Rodriguez siblings went straight into the hungry belly of St. Louis' lunchtime beast: downtown Clayton. The small restaurant sits in a former Quizno's sandwich shop and retains its predecessor's quick service set-up.
The format is about the only thing the two concepts have in common, though. Mayana has a palette of vibrant red and yellow tones, with a large mural of the restaurant's Mayan mask logo emblazoned on the floor and Mayan-inspired designs painted in yellow on the restaurant's white walls. The small space offers roughly five two-seater tables and a line of window ledge seats, making it more conducive to takeout than dining in, though the siblings plan to offer a larger seating area at subsequent locations.
As you are waiting in line — and there's always one to the door at lunchtime — you can see the corner of the Chipotle storefront up the road. Mayana follows its formula: Select a protein, decide how to present it (a wrap, a salad, in tacos) then move down the line to garnish your creation with a variety of accouterments.
Comparisons with the wildly successful chain are inevitable and bring up an important question: Do we really need to build a better burrito? After all, Chipotle and its imitators have the whole pared-back, built for speed, relatively fresh-tasting thing down. Mayana's expanded offerings, like nachos and seafood options, however, show us what we've been missing. They also restore the Mexican vibe (albeit an approachable, Americanized one) that has been stripped out of many national burrito chains. And considering that Michaels and company prepare every last thing from scratch on premises — and still get it out to you in minutes — Mayana should give the national chains a run for their money.
Like Hacienda, Mayana makes its flour tortillas on site from scratch daily. The result is a warm, flaky disc that is delicate, soft and slightly crisped at the edges. The difference between it and Chipotle's mass-produced version is as striking as a plate of fresh pasta versus the dry stuff that comes in a box.
That tortilla is the base of one of Mayana's signature dishes, the "Wet Burrito." This mammoth concoction is filled with a choice of meat and smothered in either rich queso blanco, warm verde or tangy enchilada sauce — or, as the menu suggests, all of the above. I opted for the carne guisado, or slow-cooked seasoned, shredded and ground beef. Between the juicy meat and medley of sauce, the server suggested only melted cheese on top. He was correct; it was a wonderful, oozing mess as it was.
"Macho Nachos" are an outstanding version of the ubiquitous Tex-Mex dish. Mayana's chips are thick, deep-fried tortillas cut into large triangles. I covered mine with succulent citrus-lime chicken, fresh from the grill and chopped in front of me, and then piled on just about everything on the line — sour cream, olives, chunky guacamole, rice, pinto beans, pico de gallo, corn and black beans — and finished it off with the smoky and mildly hot roasted tomato salsa. It's a good thing they don't serve booze or I'd be there all night imbibing and devouring this munchie-satisfying masterpiece.
Mayana's quesadilla is another example of the restaurant's ability to transform humble bar food into something spectacular. The homemade tortillas make all the difference — mounds of cheese and chicken are folded into the flour shell. When heat-pressed, the texture gets flaky and takes on a slightly oily texture. A dollop of sour cream and some pico de gallo is all it needed.
Other options for preparation styles include traditional fry bread (which could double as a cumin seed-studded pillow), a burrito bowl, a salad and street tacos. Of these, my only problem was with the tacos — unlike most street taco vendors I've encountered, Mayana uses a single tortilla rather than doubling them up. Because they are so delicate and thin, they don't hold the generous fillings well and end up breaking apart and causing a mess.
Besides the carne guisado and citrus chicken, Mayana offers a blend of garlic-and-jalapeno-flecked vegetables called calabacitas; excellent carnitas, which taste pulled fresh to order; and shrimp that is so tender, well-seasoned and fresh-tasting that it succeeds in assuaging any fears of ordering seafood from a fast-casual steam table. The only miss was the fajita steak. On one occasion it was overly salted; on another visit, the hand wasn't much lighter with the seasoning.
Mayana's salsas are another way the restaurant stands apart from the fast-casual pack. The addictive habanero gold salsa, Michaels' piece de resistance, tastes as if honey mustard has been lit afire. A seasonal chilled verde salsa had the cooling taste of cucumber and tomatillos — it could be served as soup. And the South American chimichurri salsa might get me arrested for breaking and entering — the tapenade-style puree of garlic, parsley, cilantro, chiles and oil is so spectacular, I could see myself waking up in the night in a cold sweat and having to do something about it.
The difficulty in reviewing places like Mayana is that the food is designed to be customized. By Michaels' count, there are at least 700 possible combinations, so the choices I made may not be the "right ones." However, considering how few misses I encountered, it's hard to see how you could go wrong here.
It's not just the Rodriguez siblings who have Hacienda in their blood. As it turns out, Mayana does too.
- PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
- A Mayan-inspired mural dominates one wall.