BY LENA KAZER
When it comes to high-end Latin cuisine, attention to the basics – an exquisite and authentic chili verde, fresh and thoughtfully prepared seafood – is essential. A phenomenal restaurant, however, requires a few more ingredients.
Enter Maya del Sol, a Latin-fusion restaurant located in the Hemingway District of Oak Park, a historical suburb just west of Chicago. When restaurant owners Anan and Margi Abu-Taleb opened the doors in 2007, Maya was immediately unique in its ability to offer the trendy, urban restaurant and bar experience that many believe they can only find downtown.
With a menu that balances authentic Latin cuisine with gastronomical, foodie pleasing adventures into “fusion” territory, Maya caters to both those who crave comfort food, and those who desire an adventurous dining experience. After 9, the bar swarms with friends and after-work groups in dire need of a well-mixed cocktail, and on warm days, the patio offers the luxurious feel of a much-needed vacation. The ambience is warm with the reassuring populated feel of a bar in the city, while maintaining a seated section in which you can still hear.
As a personal (and local) fan of the restaurant, I was interested in learning more about Maya and what I interpreted as a gourmet, Latin-fusion concept. I contacted Maya’s General Manager, Paul Abu-Taleb, for an interview about the restaurant. As the weeks went on, the modest interview soon became a relationship with the restaurant; a family history, Chicago gastro-biography, back of house demonstration, front of house tasting, full-blown Rolling Stone exclusive. I wanted to get an inside look at the inner workings of the restaurant, what it is that has given Maya such instant and sustained success. In what I now know as the Maya tradition, Paul offered me a figurative and literal seat at the family table, so that I could see for myself what it is that makes them worth the visit.
Meeting Maya: “The salesman’s got to drive the car.”
Friday afternoon, 4:30 P.M.
The team has gathered to taste the specials menu, a ritual I am more than happy to participate in. Kevin Grace, Assistant General Manager & Wine Director, stands to introduce the wine of the week. Carafes of garnet red wine are passed around, the legs sliding down the sides of our glasses. “Nose?” Everyone dips forward to smell the wine. Adjectives, fruits, and spices fly across the table, and the noses go back down. “Well done, palate?” The pour is thrown back, slurping sounds and whistles fill the room. Mike: “Dark fruit.” Melissa: “Plums, currants.” Everyone flips over the menu. The flavor profile is of dark fruit: cherries, currant, and plum notes. It is instantly clear that this group knows their vino, a trait any gastro-geek loves in their wait staff.
Executive Chef Rhea Brown enters the room and stands at the head of the table, humble and transfixing. Everyone follows along as Rhea explains the preparation of each special, each description punctuated with a slight nod of his head. Today, the appetizer special is queso fundito: octopus confit, tossed with poblano rajas, chorizo, and spinach. The mix is coated in chihuahua cheese, browned in the salamander, and served with crispy pita. Our forks push through the melted cheese and into the dish. The octopus is tender with an unexpectedly smoky flavor that compliments the chorizo. The rajas (peppers) are seasoned with garlic and pasilla, the heat contrasting the richness of the cheese.
When the dishes are clean and all questions have been answered, Rhea asks for feedback, quietly, “too much heat?” In surprising rambunctiousness, chairs scoot back, and several slaps on his back and a few happy mutters of profanity portray: negative. Rhea laughs and heads back into the kitchen.
Getting to Know Rhea Brown
8 PM. Maya del Sol Kitchen, peak hours.
“Spoons!” Rhea calls, they arrive within seconds. “Thanks Papa,” Rhea says, snatching another receipt and dropping his fist on the counter. “Cooking is just a part of being a chef, it isn’t everything,” Rhea explains as the dishes slide across. “You have to learn to run the back of the house as well as the front of the house, you have to learn how to be a people person.”
It doesn’t take spending much time with Rhea to feel at ease. He’s as charismatic as he is easygoing, sometimes a rare combination to find in a chef. He truly shines when he is complimented, and accepts criticism with thoughtful reflection, an attitude that has won him respect and a remarkable career.
His passion for cooking began at a young age, watching his mother prepare Caribbean dishes as a child in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Rhea pursued his culinary passion and moved to the United States in 1987, rising from washing dishes at Vie de France to cooking for Ray Charles at the House of Blues in less than 10 years. Dedicated in the head-over-heels way all the best chefs are, Rhea calls Maya his “first love,” his first executive chef position and opportunity to explore his creativity freely. Because Maya is loosely “Latin-fusion,” Rhea, who is entirely self taught, plays with French techniques, Jamaican flavor, and Latin concepts when he crafts ideas for each new special. He and Paul then taste, brainstorm, and re-taste until the dish is menu-ready.
Maya is known for their outstanding specials, as each week offers a glimpse into Rhea’s latest experimentation. When choosing each week’s specials, Paul explains, “Priority is placed on the quality of each component and how it relates to our concept – every ingredient is in season and fresh.” They stay true to a formula that always works: classic techniques, innovative flavor combinations, and utilization of seasonal fruits and vegetables. The execution then rests on Rhea, to accentuate the flavor of the fresh meat and produce with his signature Caribbean citrus notes, and then tie in a comforting and genuine Latin richness. This is the game Rhea plays when he isn’t in the kitchen at work – exploring new ideas in his kitchen at home. Maya offers the familiar staples done well, chicken enchiladas for example, it is the specials that render your plate clean, in my case, holding my hands under the table to avoid starting a slow-clap.
In addition to the specials, it is Maya’s creative variations on classic Latin dishes that set their menu apart from other Latin Fusion restaurants. The confidence and sense of balance Rhea and Paul bring to the table, quite literally, is note-worthy. The pechuga de pato ($24), for instance, epitomizes a winning dish in their accomplishment of three key components. The first and arguably most important: strict attentiveness to preparation. The seared duck breast is tender and cooked medium rare, with crispy and flavorful skin. The dish’s accompaniment is a combination of complimentary flavors and textures: crisped Yukon gold potatoes are tossed with bleu cheese and warm spinach, the perfect steakhouse-side. Finally, the creative sauce: an aromatic ancho-pecan sauce that alludes to Asian pairings of savory and sweet. Overall, each bite has an element of comfort, familiarity, and unexpected experimentation, a trifecta that is hard to beat.
The Maya team is a tight-knit group of people that have worked very hard to achieve their unity and success, and the restaurant thrives on the honesty of all of the employees with each other. When something goes wrong there is a humble (and usually humorous) confession, and with every new special on the menu, the staff tastes the dishes and gives insightful feedback. It is with this open line of communication and transparency that Maya has come to provide such a memorable experience for both their regulars, and those who walk in spontaneously. If it isn’t the spectacular food that draws you to Maya, I recommend you experience the family-style hospitality for yourself.
Also, ordering a cakuhla margarita wouldn’t hurt.
A special thanks to John Burkowski and Image Craft Digital Arts for the beautiful photographs and impromptu lessons, Paul Abu-Taleb for the laughs and handfuls of cake, Kevin Grace for the Manhattan that changed my life, and Rhea Brown for sharing his passion and joy for cooking.
Photos: John Burkowski