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Posted on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 10:16 a.m.

New Maiz aims to fill midrange Mexican niche

By Kim Bayer

A decade ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth, Mexican food in Ann Arbor was all about the giant wet burrito and deep-fried chimichanga, and national chains like Chi-Chi's and Taco Bell ruled. But over the past few years an interesting new landscape has developed, where the national chains have largely gone extinct and lots of idiosyncratic, locally owned shops have sprung up to take their place.

In the recent era, a handful of solid and inexpensive taquerias (like Tmaz, La Casita, and Taco King, to name a few) have populated the "low" end of the price range, while the new chef-driven Isalita has taken charge of the "high" end, creating something of a vacuum in the middle. Rushing in to fill the gap is the new Maiz restaurant on Washtenaw Avenue.

Calling itself a "Mexican cantina," Maiz has taken over a 220-seat former steakhouse (and more formerly smokehouse), on the highly trafficked strip between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. While their website touts the fact that "Maiz has the largest full service bar on Washtenaw Ave.," the front of the menu claims in large print that "Maiz Mexican cantina brings the bold flavors and colors of the traditional meals you would find across Mexico. Our food is prepared from scratch daily using many local suppliers for our ingredients."

With the emphasis they put on catering to a "cantina" crowd, it's not surprising that a substantial bar area with perhaps 20 bar stools and at least three large-screen TVs is the focal point of the main dining room. I was glad to see that the large square footage at Maiz is surprisingly warm, with wood floors throughout. Cushioned booths line the perimeter, with a fireplace in one room, and a mural of a Mexican street scene in another.

As in the olden days, the server brings a basket of just-fried chips — gratis, even. The chips at Maiz are wafer-thin, and colored surprisingly blue, green, yellow and red. They taste good, but are almost too delicate to pick up anything more dense than a pureed salsa.


Maiz Mexican Cantina
4855 Washtenaw Ave, Ann Arbor
  • Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight; Sun. noon-10 p.m.
  • Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
  • Liquor: Full bar
  • Prices: Moderate. Entrees are $7-$16
  • Noise level: Loud
  • Wheelchair access: Yes
We ordered the guacamole anyway. The menu says the Maiz version is "made to order with fresh avocados, pico de gallo, lime and cilantro," and it comes with even more chips. On our first visit, we were nonplussed by the lackluster army-green paste studded with pale bits of tomato. And there was plenty left over when our server came to clear. On our next visit, things had improved: This time, freshly made guac with tiny bits of cilantro and red onion was promptly dispatched at our table.

The smoked corn salsa with black beans was not as popular. Tasting of little but smoke, it needed more salt, garlic, lime, onion — anything.

We fared better with the Plato Supremo, a selection of appetizers including a sopes, sweet potato cakes, fried jalapenos and the smoked corn salsa. Having a weakness for deep-fried food, I enjoyed all of these salty, crunchy snacks.

I was struck, though, by the odd juxtaposition of the traditional sopes with their little hand-made masa boats holding shredded pork and pickled onion contrasted with the Americanized cream-cheese-stuffed jalapeno poppers and the crunchy sweet potato and black bean cakes. Regardless, the creamy poppers and golden sweet potato cakes were both excellent examples of bar food at its deep-fried best.

Not that there's anything wrong with jalapeno poppers and sweet potato cakes in a Mexican restaurant, but for me it undercuts the assertion that "you'll find the flavors of Mexico brought to you in every fresh and flavorful bite." And it heightens my suspicions of marketing messages like "we strive to use local ingredients," especially when the "local ingredients" claim is followed by that frequent and all-purpose disclaimer "when we can."

So when we pressed for more information about Maiz's local sourcing, we learned that rather than working with local producers and farmers, they attempt to use "local suppliers," which Maiz defines as Michigan-based companies including Hiller's and Gordon Food Service.

Among my favorites of the Maiz dinners we tried was the chiles rellenos, with "smoked poblanos coated in corn flour, filled with shredded chicken." The rellenos served topped with salsa verde and queso fresco. This kitchen does know its way around a deep fryer. We got two fat poblano peppers, fried golden brown and stuffed with a very mild chicken and cheese filling. The peppers were piled atop a bed of "spanish rice," with a tasty sofrito of peppers and onion mixed in. I enjoyed the mild heat and crunchy coating of the peppers with the creamy richness of the cheese and chicken.

I also thought the Camarones a la Diabla was tasty. Described as "spicy, sauteed shrimp with diced tomatoes, onion, and chipotle peppers served with rice," this mild-heat dish featured a sauce that was deliciously chunky and garlicky, and a good match with the Spanish-style rice. The medium shell-on shrimp were just just okay, but that spicy, complex sauce made up for it.

When my husband ordered the Tacos de Pescado, our server asked if he preferred soft corn, flour or hard corn tortillas to hold the "Dos XX beer battered cod, tangy slaw, mango salsa and chipotle cream." He chose soft corn for the tortillas, and the battered cod was nicely fried in the three generous tacos. But the condiments lacked the bright punchy flavors I would have expected. The tacos came with sides of unremarkable refried beans and "street corn," aka elote, a grilled cob slathered with mayonnaise and chile powder that made passable eating.

The Enchiladas Verde is described as being served with "spicy green salsa verde," and comes with a choice of chicken, pork or beef, with rice and beans on the side, and crema and queso fresco on top. Rolled in a soft corn tortilla that fell apart, the chicken was tender, but the tortilla tasted raw and had an off flavor. Most enchilada recipes that I have seen direct the tortillas to be fried in oil before being dipped in enchilada sauce and enclosing the filling—the oil both cooking the tortilla and helping to preserve its structural integrity. The green tomatillo sauce was only mildly spicy and had bright, uncomplicated flavor, but it was still enough to overpower the mild chicken. While some at the table enjoyed this dish, I found it muddled and mushy.

A sign posted at the door on our first visit listed tamales as the day's special, with a choice of chicken, pork, or spicy vegetable (they have since been added to the regular menu). I was excited to see the tamales wrapped in the traditional corn husks in which they were steamed. They were filled with a salty, mildly spicy masa, and I was not immediately able to distinguish the shredded pork from the shredded chicken tamale. However, I enjoyed the spicy vegetable option, which seemed to have smoky poblanos as a main ingredient.

Among their four the dessert offerings, I found little to love. Most of the desserts fail at being true to the flavors of Mexico or even Mexican-America, in my opinion. Deep-fried oreos with ice cream, described by our server as tasting like donuts, was one dessert choice that tasted like something you would get from a carnival vendor. Another choice, chocolate cake flan, consisted of a layer of very firm cheesecake-like flan on the bottom and a very wet chocolate cake on top. The other two options, Abuelita Chocolate Crisps and Fried Ice Cream, were almost the same dessert. Both have fried flour tortillas, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate sauce; but the fried ice cream has a nice cinnamon coating.

Maiz does seem familiar with many popular dishes of Mexico, with a menu that includes enchiladas and tacos along with less commonly seen items like tamales, sopes, rellenos, and even chilaquiles and elote. But the food seems often to lack the sophisticated technique and complex herbs, spices and (especially) chiles of Mexico.

However, I'm not sure that everyone will find fault. The food is on the positive side and the portions are large. And I do think they are doing their best to provide mid-range Tex-Mex food for the American palate, and I do believe their claim that "we make our food from scratch daily."

My experience was that Maiz offers filling and uncomplicated food that appeals to families and a bar crowd. Since Maiz is still very new and they seem well-intentioned, I hope they can make adjustments that will help them live up to their claims. I did find our second visit a more positive experience than the first, with much credit to the large margarita and our delightful server.

Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.



Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 2:14 p.m.

My husband and I were there the first time last Sunday night. Impressed with the redecoration, very clean looking. Somewhat disturbing and a mood-killer was the extreme cleaning (noisy with dust broom) during our dinner (thought it could have waited closer to closing time). I also ordered the Tacos de Pescado. Nice portion but the fish reminded me of frozen boxed fish sticks and won't get this again. I however, loved the street corn. The rice lacked flavor and thought the salsa for the chips needs more substance (too watery). My husband ordered the El Gordo Bastardo. He thought there was little chorizo and in place of the (barely) sauteed peppers a roasted poblano would have been better. I've never seen a chimichanga that included rice and beans so thought that was a little weird. Our service was great and appreciated the pop refill without asking. The margarita was not exceptional. We will try again and I hope they will expand the menu.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:31 p.m.

We were excited to give them a try but Maiz was a big fail. They've done a nice job with the look of the place and the service is friendly but the food was the pits. Also, the reviewer gives them credit for "gratis" just fried corn chips. All local Mexican restaurants (excluding taqiueras) bring a basket of chips at the beginning of the meal. Maiz's chips are not freshly fried and personally, I don't care for food coloring in my chips. Those were not the lovely colors of chips made from red or blue corn, those were cheap, inferior chips from a food service company and then, warmed before brought. Ours even had a weird, burnt taste to them and when we asked the server about it, he told us that they are kept in a warmer and sometimes, chips fall onto the hot coil and smoke and that was why they had that taste. Really? And you're still serving them? He proceeded to replace our basket with another, which, of course had the same problem. When we told him, he again brought us another basket and said," I broke the rule and got some right out of the bag for you". He really needn't have bothered. I don't care that the food isn't "authentic" or "challenging", I'm looking for tasty and that's not what we got with any of our entrees. Carnitas that were pallid in looks and in taste, corn tortillas that were not properly prepared and had that awful, raw taste to them. Does the chef even bother to taste the food that they're preparing because I can't believe that a professional would send such unpleasant tasting stuff out of the kitchen. Also, once our food was served, our friendly server never bothered to check back on us to see how things were. What a disappointment. We were so excited that we might finally have a good full service Mexican restaurant in the area. Unfortunately, Maiz isn't it. I would also like to say that I'm really sick of restaurants that want to talk the talk of "local sourcing" and reap the benefit of that ta


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 3:42 p.m.

Thank you for the feedback! I am happy to let you know that do to our success, we were able to purchase a new oven to warm the chips and the issue has been fixed. Martha and her husband at Tortilla Titas in a small local business in Westland make tortillas for us fresh every week and we cut and fry them up daily throughout service.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 2:24 p.m.

I can confirm Sarah; was just at La Fiesta within the last few weeks, and they charged for every basket of chips. I know, because we got more than one, becuase while their chips are really good (if you can handle salty) their salsa is amazing. Rest of the food is good too, but it'd be nice to have someplace closer with better parking, and price/quantity. Don Carlos was one; but I wish there were more. So far this one sounds disappointing.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:28 p.m.

Interesting. We've never been charged for chips at La Fiesta but I would gladly pay for them because they're delicious, as is their salsa.

Sarah Rigg

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:59 p.m.

It's actually not true that ALL local Mexican restaurants bring you free chips. In my experience, unless they've changed their policy, you have to pay for chips at La Fiesta Mexicana.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:28 p.m.

I love, love, love the newly added baked avocado appetizer!!

Neil Carver

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:13 a.m.

Have to say I disagree. While hardly high end gourment, Maiz is one of the best things to hit this town in a while. We've eaten there a half dozen times at least since it opened, and each time they've improved service and food continuously. While the food is not challenging, that isn't why you'd go to to such a place, you go for filling, tasty fare and a great atmosphere. That, Maiz has in spades.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 1:17 p.m.

Agree, Neil. You don't go to Maiz for the best meal in town. You go for good food and really good prices with a great atmosphere. The happy hour specials are great, and they have one of my favorite veggie quesadillas in town.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:05 a.m.

I loved Casita de Lupe in Braun Court.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:52 a.m.

You should try Aut Bar on Saturday and Sunday mornings, then. They have a Mexican brunch menu with the old brunch dishes.

UM Rocks

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:52 a.m.

Miss that place too!! YUM!!


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 8:16 p.m.

As the owner of the restaurant I want to thank for their efforts to review our restaurant. We hope that those that haven't been in will come in soon and try us! We are going to be adding a DJ on Fri and Sat nights starting April 5th and 6th from 10-midnight, so if you have dancing shoes, bust them out! I wanted to reach out to the readers as well to explain a little more about the concept. Fresh from scratch food for around ten dollars. We make every sourcing decision with an emphasis on using a Michigan based company and cooking from scratch. This is a major priority. However, on a volume 220 seat restaurant (opened in MI in January), we can't exactly go an buy the whole farmer's market selection, so we fully intend to bring in some locally grown products this summer. We are still searching for a farmer willing to plant tomatoes, corn, and peppers for us, so if you know of anyone, please have them contact us through Missed in the article also is sourcing our tortillas (which we sell a lot of) from Tortilla Titas (Westland) and Hacienda (Detroit). We hope to stock our huge unused freezer this summer with lots of MI product. See you soon!

Slim Jim

Fri, Mar 29, 2013 : 1:30 a.m.

Thank you for responding to this "review" that in my opinion was not accurate. My family and I enjoyed our recent meal at your restaurant. The food and drinks were great, and we will be back soon. I had a chicken enchilada, and did not notice any of the issues mentioned by this reviewer. I wish you much success in a tough market!


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 9:50 p.m.

(Please take this as constructive criticism. I'd love for you to become a great mid-range Mexican restaurant I really want to eat at. That end of town needs one.)


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 9:49 p.m.

Note that a lot of the comments are about flavor, not sourcing. I think you guys have the resources to punch it up a bit, do more actual Mexican dishes, and make it a great place. Push a little.


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 6:19 p.m.

I was underwhelmed by everything except the staff, who were really nice. The food was bland. Steak fajitas were decent.

Vivienne Armentrout

Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 4:01 p.m.

I was particularly disappointed with the rice and beans. I don't remember much about the beans (truly forgettable, apparently) but the rice was not at all what I think of as Spanish rice - rather, it was a pilaf of rather chewy grains that I'm betting were made with Uncle Ben's Converted Rice. A decent dish, but not Spanish rice. Taco King has the best rice and beans I've had in this area. I don't know how to do this myself, but I gather that the trick is cooking the rice in the broth, complete perhaps with some tomato sauce, so it is colored throughout and very tender. I'm still waiting for that "midrange" Mexican restaurant. How hard can it be? Rather than fussed-up entrées, a basic taco & enchilada menu should be possible that will keep customers happy. (I'd add just a few specials.) We used to like the previous incarnation of Los Amigos (Brierwood area), which we called the "pretty good Mexican restaurant". They had the standards, inexpensive combos, and good rice. Unfortunately, they have changed management and it is difficult to get a meal there with any flavor at all. And yes, I miss Don Carlos too. The beef poblano burrito...


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 3:49 p.m.

My wife and I were there about a month ago and thought it was fantastic. We ordered the sweet potato pancakes and really enjoyed them. She is a meat-eater and swore that her carne asada tacos were the best she's ever had. I don't eat meat so much and loved the veggie quesadilla. In addition, our waiter made great recommendations and the owner stopped by to say hi. Finally, we didn't think the drinks were watered down at all - in fact, I had to drive home because my wife drank HALF of her marguerita. We will be back.


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 3:39 p.m.

You're going to mention Chi-Chi's...but not la Pinata or Senor Lopez's?

Thinking over here

Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 3:28 p.m.

Try Cancun in Saline - very similar, but I think the portions are bigger and I think taste better :)

Thinking over here

Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 7:24 p.m.

yeah - I saw that, but they are new and I'm hoping it is growing pains because the food is GOOD.


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 7:03 p.m.

Maybe check the health inspector's report from last month first.

Jessica Webster

Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 3:15 p.m.

Kim - your review mirrors my experience there. I was hoping it would be a fun place to meet friends for a margarita and small plates, but I don't think it lived up to my hopes and expectations. Our margaritas tasted watered down, and when we went there, several of our dishes were very heavily seasoned with celery salt and mot much else. It was strange. Like you said, though, the service was efficient and friendly, and it is a nice space. Maybe I will give them another chance in a month or two to see if they've worked out the food problems.


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 11:27 a.m.

They've been open for several weeks now. That seems like enough time to get their act together, which, in my experience, is not the case.

Vivienne Armentrout

Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 10:34 p.m.

Yes, I'd like to see it succeed too. There is someone in Ypsi talking about a Mexican restaurant on site of the old Elbow Room. Hope springs eternal.


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 10:15 p.m.

So doing this review so early on is a good reason, how? It makes no sense for to write a review with a newly opened restaurant. What do you really accomplish when this type of article is written

Little Patience

Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 2:59 p.m.

My sister and I went there for lunch last week. We split the "aMAIZing Nacho's w/ beef" for our meal. They were really, really good! For me, something was off with their salsa. Maybe it was too chunky for my liking? I look forward to trying other options from their menu.


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 2:57 p.m.

Someone please copy edit the image captions. They are filled with several errors, both of a spelling and grammatical nature.

Jessica Webster

Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Thanks for pointing that out, Danish. We've corrected the errors.


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 2:53 p.m.

A decade ago there was a wonderful restaurant across the street from this place called Don Carlos.

UM Rocks

Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:48 a.m.

MMMM Don Carlos. And even longer ago this location was Hercs. Miss that place too!!


Thu, Mar 28, 2013 : 12:03 a.m.

That place was so great!


Wed, Mar 27, 2013 : 4:11 p.m.

I still really miss Don Carlos! Used to go there all the time!