New Maiz aims to fill midrange Mexican niche
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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.
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
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.Â 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 theÂ 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 ofÂ 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.