Authenticity on a Platter 

Salvadoran specialties satisfy at Maiz Restaurante.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Maiz is the array of folklorica and rustic detailing that almost transform what looks from the outside like a strip-mall Laundromat into a colorful Salvadoran cantina. A handsome stone fountain greets the arriving patrons. Flanking the cash register is an Our Lady toothpick holder and a Día de los Muertos waitress figurine in multicolored wire. Other tiny sculptures — a guy on a burro, a troupe of sombrero'd dancers — decorate the tabletops, the windowsills, and an ancient wooden sideboard that looks like it was hand-wrought by a conquistador. One wall is all deep reds and oranges in bold swatches; another is a sponged-plaster subaquatic green accented with bits of wood and straw. Potted plants and colorful blankets are arranged here and there in pleasantly haphazard fashion, and the room's airy if smallish dimensions and plate-glass windows lend the place a light-filled, open, welcoming feel.

Maiz succeeds in brightening its nondescript stretch of San Pablo Avenue through the efforts of Isabel Grande and her family. "My uncle had a pupuseria back in San Salvador," she says, "and the whole family cooked." When Isabel was thirteen, the family moved to the US, bringing their culinary traditions with them. They opened Maiz last May. "We put a lot of care and energy into our cooking," says Grande. "It's our desire to share our experiences from home with everyone who comes here."

The restaurant reflects this inclusive attitude. The welcome is warm, the atmosphere affable, the ambient music an inauthentic yet cheery '70s-'80s mix 'n' match. Steamed yucca, fried plantains, loroco blossoms, and other rarely encountered ingredients are assembled into bright, lively dishes that are as pleasant to look at as to eat, and Maiz' vibrant aesthetic is reflected in a succession of geometric pastel platters, beautifully seeded cobalt-rimmed glasses, and positively tactile bamboo placemats.

Things kick off with steamed or fried yucca, a gummy-textured variation on the potato with a mild flavor that's nicely balanced here by two bracing varieties of pickled cabbage and delectable tidbits of charred-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside fried pork. Another appetizer, chips and guacamole, isn't as successful: despite their homemade status, the chips can be on the stale side, while the guacamole needs some salt or jalapeño or lime juice to give it some oomph. (You may want to visit the salsa bar instead, which features the two slaws mentioned above, as well as pickled peppers and three surprisingly mild examples of the genre.)

Pupusas, a popular Salvadoran specialty, are well represented on Maiz' menu. "You pretty much have to have a family recipe handed down from generations to prepare pupusas correctly," says Grande, who's descended from a long line of pupusa-makers. Crafted by hand of masa (cornmeal dough) and a choice of six cheese-based fillings, then grilled, the house version is lighter and crisper than the standard variety, with more of that purple slaw alongside for brio and roughage. The basic pupusa is as warm, crunchy, and satisfying as a really good grilled cheese sandwich; another variation adds a hearty layer of pork and beans, the ideal cold-weather snack; another throws in loroco blossoms for a sharp, tangy, nasturtium-like flavor. Pupusas can be ordered à la carte or on a platter of two with rice and beans.

The Salvadoran entrées are uniformly good. The bistec Salvadoreño, for instance, is a warm, piquant platter of comfort food in which tender fillets of juicy steak interact with braised onion and sweet pepper in a tangy, citrusy marinade. It's accompanied by a light, fluffy rice pilaf studded with peas and carrots, pretty good refried beans, plump handmade tortillas, and fresh, peppery spring greens — an upscale variation on the usual iceberg lettuce with tomatoes. The Salvadoran chile relleno isn't the heavy, oily ball of glop encountered in many a restaurant; here (as in the bistec dish), each flavor is bright and distinct, with the sweet, smoky taste of flame-roasted poblano balancing the verdant flavors of zucchini, carrot, and string bean, the creamy presence of molten cheese, and a few shards of (barely noticeable) chicken. Best of all is the Salvadoran enchilada, a tostada-like Hollywood production featuring two crisp, cloudlike tortillas topped with layers of bistec, chicken, or shrimp, fried beans, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, and melted cheese. The crunch of the tortilla, the silkiness of the toppings, and the bite of the occasional jalapeño create a marvelous textural treat.

The kitchen also makes forays into Mexican cuisine, with burritos, quesadillas, and the more standard variety of enchilada offered on the menu. We tried the veggie burrito, but despite a few chunks of carrot, zucchini, and bell pepper, a preponderance of rice and an overall lack of zip results in a heavy package. (A glass of horchata, the sweet milky rice drink, helped wash it down, however.) Maiz also offers two desserts, yucca patties with piloncillo syrup, and plantain dumplings filled with milk pudding. Unfortunately, neither was available on our second visit, and during our first visit the dining room was so chilly we departed before the dessert course. Service is another fluctuating concern: one night it was slow and confused, another it was prompt and professional.

The food and ambience are ample compensation, though. And further attractions are in the works: a wine and beer license, outdoor seating, more of those authentic dishes from the family repertoire. Crab stew with pumpkin and sesame seeds, anyone?


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