Oye Como Vamanos a Maria Maria, musician Carlos Santana's new place in Hazard Center. 8 days in and the joint was jumpin', even those odd early evening sprinkles couldn't put a damper on the business. A reservation would have been handy because at 6 pm everything was full up, even the bar.
There was a small misstep at the beginning as I was seated at a table with a decidedly downward slope. But after that was fixed, everything was actually very good. The drink menu boasts at least 7 or 8 Margaritas made from different tequilas for $7 - 12. There is a selection of tequilas for sipping, and a sangria, but no mezcal. The specialty drinks were all $10 and offered some interesting items, the Paloma (tequila + grapefruit soda (think Wink!)), a Guava sparkler (sparkling wine + guava juice) and the drink I finally chose, the Rosetta. A beautiful dark rose beverage made with tequila, jamacia, cointreau and lime juice...yep, the jamacia margarita. Garnished with a nice lime slice and little vanda orchid. It tasted as good as it looked and mercifully was not overly sweet.
Dining solo didn't give me a chance to try much of the menu, but I did like what I tried. I asked my waiter what was good and he recommended the duck tacos, said they were his favorite thing on the menu. Not being in a ducky mood this evening, I passed but would be willing to try those on a later date as they did sound pretty dam* good.
I settled on the Grilled Skirt Steak with Nopales and a side of corn. The adobo rubbed skirt steak was ordered medium rare and that's the way it came. It really was fork tender and I didn't need the knife to cut it. Plate presentation was quite nice with a pool of a very respectable ranchera sauce covering the bottom and the steak attractively draped over a generous portion of ensalada de nopales, and all of it finished off with some squiggles of crema and cilantro. It was a delicious and satisfying dish with a lot of very traditional flavors.
The nopales salad was a nice mixture of sliced nopales (cactus paddles) and cherry tomatoes tossed up with a red onion vinaigrette. I thought the acidity of the vinaigrette got lost when it comingled with the ranchera sauce. The tart, acidic zing typical in a salad of nopales would have been a nice contrast to the richness of the meat and tomato char of the ranchera sauce.
The menu described the corn side as roasted corn garnished with crema, cotija cheese, lime and cilantro. In other words how corn is normally served in Mexico. What the menu didn't say - by my server did when I asked - is that the corn is still on the cob. It comes beautifully grilled with the husks pulled back adorned with the garnishes. No, it's not the easiest or most graceful thing to eat, but you can cut it off the cob to make eating the corn easier. I didn't, I threw caution to the wind, picked it up and gnawed on the cob in full view of all the other diners. The corn on my ear was very sweet and very tender. Be forewarned, however, that the cob does cool down pretty fast so don't dawdle eating it.
The dessert menu is short and I'm not sure how good it is. I tried the lime pie. Good, not great, underwhelming. Kind of like a grainy key lime pie. Othere desserts were a chocolate mouse, flan and an absolutely lethal Spanish Coffee well laced with mulitple liquors.
Service was good, and it was clear time had been spent in training employees. Management was on the floor talking to diners and actively soliciting feedback. I had a nice chat with one of the managers and learned that they've been busier than they anticipated, are somewhat understaff because of that, and the kitchen has been slammed. I also scored a sample of the blackberry mole sauce from the manager. It comes with the short ribs, which I almost ordered, but they didn't quite seem to be the thing for a warm and humid evening. That blackberry mole sauce was outstanding. Well balanced, nuanced, not too sweet, not too overtly chile-ish, the sauce was everything a good mole should be.
I like the amibance and energy of Maria Maria. The drink, entree and corn were all good enough to make me want to come back and try more of the menu, as did many of the plates I saw passing my table on the way to other diners. It's not quite alta cocina, but it's not the typical taqueria or any of the dumbed down Mexican combo-plate places we have around town. I liked the flavor profiles on the food I ate, I liked the atmospher, I hope they can settle in and provide some smart, sophisticated Mexican cuisine.