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RestaurantsSanta Cruz
December 20-27, 2006

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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Ain't no party like a post-finals party: Esoteric tequila and large platters make Maya the perfect place to celebrate the completion of another academic quarter.

Resurgent Empire

Maya's brings a taste of pre-Spanish decadence to Santa Cruz County

By Selene Latigo

Dave has been diligently taking a series of intensive Spanish classes for quite some time now. His final exam on Monday marked a sense of competency and relief and called for a small celebration. But where to celebrate? Recently, we have started driving the straight shot up Highway 17 for the "cheap movie night" on Thursday instead of braving 41st Avenue traffic, even though entering Scotts Valley sometimes feels like penetrating a different state, a world away from Santa Cruz's unique eccentricities. Our last trip to the movies brought to light a new possibility for Mexican food, and the bright, bold, block letters painted on the windows stating "FULL BAR" was reason enough to return to Maya, as the restaurant is known, to honor Dave's accomplishment.

We are lucky to have so many small taquerias in the county offering a peek into the diverse street specialties of Mexico's varied regions. However, the cantina-style sit-down restaurants with vast seating, endless decoration and pseudotiled rooftops above vinyl booths are fewer and far between. Often leaning toward the American end of Mexican-American cuisine, these family-friendly zones always seem to put me into a festive mood, but maybe that's just the cerveza and mariachi talking. These kitschy associations can excuse and transcend the generally heavy fare we've all encountered, the same way you shrug off judging a classic greasy spoon diner or a beloved childhood pizza parlor.

We started our little two-person party at the bar, a huge separate room with long overflow tables and a few chairs and couches creating a lounge atmosphere. At least a dozen specialty margaritas are listed with titles describing Mexican regions and Mayan history. We counted several tequilas we had never seen before, an impressive fact considering Dave's compulsive and regular tequila acquisitions. The bartender offered us a sample of their new mescal, the smoky headiness taking us back a year to our winter in Oaxaca. Dave's celebratory spirit was more restrained than usual, and he stuck to icy cold Dos Equis ($3.25) with lime, while I was more boisterous in my drink selection of the Super Mayarita ($8.50). A sturdy, double-wide margarita glass held two shots of tequila, brandy, sweet and sour and a drizzle of Gran Gala, a specialty brandy with the flavor of pure orange essence that, by bringing out a luxuriant layer to this humongous creation, made the drink distinctive.

Although we were kindly served hot crispy thin chips and excellent spicy, chunky, cilantro and cumin-heavy salsa at the bar, we were ready to tuck into more sizable dishes at our own booth. Throughout the night, every staff member we interacted with was extremely helpful and genuine, creating a friendly mom-and-pop feeling in this otherwise large-format space. The menu is a standard representation of everything one would expect from a Mexican-American establishment, only diverging a bit with some soups, salads and shrimp specials. I chose to concoct my own combination plate with two a la carte items: one fish taco and one vegetarian sope ($9). The taco preparation was different than expected, with a sizable flour tortilla encasing simply broth-simmered snapper. The tomato, onion and avocado described on the menu were in fact the garnish, which I chopped up and mingled with the fish and a generous amount of salsa. The sope began with a crisp yet chewy fried corn disk topped with refried beans, iceberg lettuce, cold grated cheese, sour cream and avocado. Again, the great salsa enhanced this standard selection.

Dave went large with "Maya's Dream" ($14.95), a platter with three items plus rice, beans and a "tossed salad" of iceberg lettuce and a lonely avocado slice. The thin, grilled steak and cheese enchilada held no pleasant surprises, but the platter grew more appetizing when he got to the star of the entrees, the spicy chile relleno. Far from being greasy or clotted with thick cheese, this version was lightly coated in an egg blanket and held just the right ratio of melted cheese in each bite. Another detail worth mentioning is the use of olive oil instead of lard that made the creamy richness of Dave's beans seem quite a feat.

Celebrations require dessert, and I was curious to sample the sopapilllas ($3.25), remembering the puffy honeyed pillows in Taos with excitement. What arrived were fried flour tortilla triangles, diverging from my image but still warm and delectable just the same, with a drizzle of honey, cinnamon, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream; an over-the-top ending for this significant night.


Address: 3115 Scotts Valley Drive, Scotts Valley

Phone: 831.438.7004

Hours: 11am-9pm

Price Range: $6-$16.

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