edible words
Sept. 17, 2004

Mexican taken to a new level
by Mike Taylor

Nothing about Maya's Mexican Bistro, 12921 State Line Rd., suggests the restaurant's true nature until a diner opens the menu. Oh, sure, "Mexican" offers a certain suggestion, but what does it mean when combined with "bistro"?

The restaurant sits at the north end of a strip mall (on the Missouri side) across from some of south Leawood's tonier subdivisions. The building with its pedestrian brick exterior previously housed a steakhouse and barbecue joint. The interior with cantina-style wooden chairs, brown clothed tables and brick walls adorned with wrought iron artworks suggests "Mexican Bistro" in a minimal way. But it's the menu that reveals "two" restaurants in one kitchen.

One of Maya's most popular dishes from the Bistro side of the menu. (photos by Jessica Chapman)

Headings atop the two-page spread tell customers they're not at an ordinary Mexican restaurant. The "Traditional" page presents a full array of the usual Mexican dishes The "Bistro" page describes entrees with a Spanish flare, reflecting chef/co-owner Rodney Clodfelter's previous stint as Piropos' sous chef. Clodfelter's brother-in-law and co-owner Peter Alvarez developed the traditional part of the menu after working as a manager for Margarita's.

Clodfelter and Alvarez, their wives, as well as two other couples, opened the restaurant last December. None of the eight are named Maya. Kelly Alvarez told me on the phone that she made the name up because she liked the sound of the name of the ancient Mexican tribe.

Fulfillment of the menu's promise starts with the complementary chips and salsa. Any Mexican restaurant worth a second Margarita makes its own tortillas chips, but I haven't found one before that goes to the trouble of using roast tomatoes in the salsa. Emily, my other half, and Karen the caterer both sopped the salsa onto chips despite their general distaste for cilantro. Karen said, "This isn't bad. I can tolerate the cilantro in here."

Seafood and cheeses dominate the appetizers. Maya's Ceviche ($7) features scallops and shrimp. Cheese dishes include a spinach and white cheddar dip ($5) and Queso Fundido ($5), a cheese casserole with Chorizo sausage. They also serve Tableside Guacamole ($5) but my cilantro-shy companions had the waiter substitute chopped tomatoes for the cilantro-laced Pico de gallo used to season the dish. I didn't get to appreciate the dip's full flavor.

Artichoca Frita ($5), deep fried artichokes with the ubiquitous queso and served with a seductive spicy cream sauce, drew raves and serious praise from our foursome on one nightly visit. Emily and our friends Leah and Lenny gave excited "ummmhs" and "ahhhs" after their first bites. Leah told me, "You've got to tell people about this."

We all had similar responses to the two soups on the menu, Chicken and Green Chile Tortilla Soup ($3.75) and Cancun Shrimp Bisque ($4.50). The clear broth of the former disguised the peppery kick behind the chicken and corn flavors. Emily said the bisque, although tasty and well loaded with shrimp, didn't have the velvety texture she expected of a bisque.

On one visit, I ordered a spinach salad ($4.25) with fried onions, tomatoes, bleu cheese crumbles and whole bacon strips under a creamy herb dressing. Less creamy and more herb in the dressing would better served to highlight the salad's other flavors.

On our trip with Leah and Lenny, we ordered a variety of the traditional dishes, served ala Carte and ranging from $2.50 for a beef taco to $14.90 for shrimp fajitas. While spicy, most of the dishes have a MexiCali bent rather than a Tex-Mex heat. The chicken chimichanga ($6.90), the Portabella and spinach quesedilla ($6.65) and Camerones al Mojo (Garlicky Shrimp) tacos ($3.50) stood out as sophisticated versions of the usual everyday fare. With the fresh ingredients prepared with a light touch, the dishes didn't need smothering in thick red salsa.

When we went with Karen, we sampled the "Bistro" side of the menu. These entrees, served with potatoes or rice and ranging from $14.90 for a stuffed chicken breast to $26.40 for a filet with Mexican brandy sauce and Portabella, have a more continental flare. "The bistro dishes have a Spanish theme," Alvarez told me on the phone, adding that the bistro dishes have grown to about forty percent of their sales.

He also said that I'd unwittingly tried the most popular dish on the bistro menu, Chille Rellenos de Mariscal ($16.65). Served atop a hill of white rice surrounded by an almond cream sauce, the two poblano chille peppers contain a wonderful combination of shrimp, scallops and red snapper in ricotta cheese. Karen fell in love with the Chile Rellenos even though she doesn't like sweet entrees most of the time.

I liked the Puerco del Rocco ($15.35), marinated pork slow roasted in banana leaves with rice and beans. Spiced with a distinctly Latin American flare, the juicy, shredded meat could compete in any barbecue contest even without sauce. Alvarez recommended the plank-cooked salmon with pineapple/mango salsa ($15.90) and flame grilled pork chops with three different salsas ($16.35.

Like many restaurants in suburbia, service at Maya's proved inconsistent. We sat in the bar on one visit and had an informative and alert server. The second time we sat in the dining room early on a Saturday evening and received a minimal amount of attention from a very uncommunicative, indifferent fellow. The food he delivered redeemed him.

Clodfelter, Alvarez and their partners offer delicious food from an ambitious menu in a casual, comfortable setting. I could argue that the only thing wrong with Maya's Mexican Bistro is its location. It should be down in the Crossroads or on 39th Street's restaurant row. A "bistro" belongs uptown, downtown or in midtown, not out in the burbs.

Maya's Mexican Bistro

12921 State Line Rd., Kansas City, MO


Mon.-Thurs., 11a.m.-10p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 11a.m.-11p.m.
Sun., Noon.-9p.m.

Ratings: (out of four stars)

FOOD ***1/2
PRICE  $-$$

Key: $-under $10 • $$-$10 to $20 • $$$-over $20

fork, knife, spoon


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