Maya del Sol
Cuisine: Mexican street food
Representative Dish: Taco al pastor
Address: 1012 E. Montague Ave., Suite 102
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Food: 3 1/2
Costs: Appetizers $3.99-$6.99; tacos $2.99; sandwiches $6.99-$7.99; brunch $6.99-$10.99
Other: Maya Del Sol departs from its standard daytime menu to serve a changing selection of entrees for dinner.
Charlestonians had plenty of choice expressions to describe January's triple-barreled onslaught of cold, rain and tumbling ice, but the phrase "perfect taco weather" probably never surfaced. The wintry conditions weren't thematically compatible with grilled meat spritzed with lime, or fatigue-green tomatillo salsa as sheer and jaunty as a jib sail.
But a scheduling quirk resulted in me last month making multiple trips to Maya Del Sol, including an aborted dinner mission on the same night the modest Park Circle taqueria was closed for bad weather. The decision was probably sensible: Maya Del Sol is really more of a take-out window than a restaurant.
On the planked patio, there are folding wooden tables and folding wooden chairs, a smidge classier than the plastic furniture sold in a department store's garden section. But if you care about restaurants having things like walls, the clear plastic panels that surround the seating area may leave you cold (although, on most days, only figuratively: An outdoor heater takes care of all but record-setting low temperatures.)
And yet, in defiance of my rigid views on seasonal correctness - I won't touch Scotch whisky after March - I adored my meals at Maya Del Sol. As the name suggests, the taco stand really does conjure summer, a feat that has something to do with the bright coral red paint on its only permanent wall, and something to do with the late '80s soundtrack that keeps circling back to the Miami Sound Machine. Mostly, though, the sensation of being just a few blocks from the beach is rooted in the untroubled joy that's conveyed by Raul Sanchez's skilled cooking.
Sanchez previously ran Raul's Taqueria and Mexican Grill, but shut down the Rivers Road restaurant in late 2012. During the year which elapsed between the end of Raul's and the start of Maya Del Sol, Sanchez stayed busy with pop-up dinners, including a series of appearances at Butcher & Bee. The legacy of those meals is apparent in the cemita, seated on a seeded Butcher & Bee bun with a ruddy dome cracked like a gesso canvas.
Beef cemitas reign in Puebla, the state that first came up with the sandwich, but Maya del Sol also offers chicken and pork. A chicken cemita is essentially a chicken parmesan sub's Mexican cousin: Here, the meat is pounded thin, breaded and fried, then dressed with beaten avocado, short strands of white string cheese, chipotle peppers and pesto made with papalo, a hardy wild green that smells like laundry detergent.
A sandwich that calls for fat upon fat upon fat sounds like a can't-miss scheme, which makes Maya del Sol's meticulous preparation even more impressive. Sealed in a clean, crisp coating of not-too-sweet breading, the chicken, which pokes past the edges of the bun, is marvelously juicy. And as the toppings settle into the bird, the assemblage acquires a rounder, deeper heat.
The homemade corn tortillas aren't as special as the cemita roll. But they're good and decent tortillas, and more than capable of supporting the selection of taco, burrito and torta fillings that form the core of Maya del Sol's daytime menu. (There also are quesadillas; a fresh, oniony guacamole, discreetly tagged with jalapenos; and an overly sour elotes, thick with mayonnaise. None of them should distract you from the tacos.)
Technically, Maya del Sol has plenty to offer vegetarians, but the kitchen is high on meat. When I ordered a chile-and-cheese tamale, I received a pork tamale. When I asked for chilaquiles with eggs, I got chilaquiles with steak. If your dietary inclinations permit it, take the hint: Beef and pork are the stars of this protein pageant. A slumping chile relleno was heavy and bland, while it was impossible to taste past the mango salsa clinging to knobs of flaking white fish.
So go for the al pastor. Seductively drippy with orange grease, the crisp-edged pork hums with spices that make salsa gratuitous. The soulful barbacoa is equally excellent, although it was the sumptuous tongue, tender and beefy, that made me think about seconds.
Still, none of Maya del Sol's taco achievements could dissuade me from believing the taqueria's best meal is brunch. On Sunday mornings, the standard chalkboard menu, typically still marked up with dinner specials from the previous night, is shunned in favor of an alluring list of pancakes and egg dishes, including a huevos rancheros blanketed with a dusky mole.
If I wanted to be difficult, I might point out that the rich sweetness of red tomatoes could brighten the chilaquiles, a noble mess of fried torn-up tortillas, pureed black beans, tart tomatillo salsa and finely grated, tangy white cheese. But I'm highly inclined to let it slide. The oily, bendy (but not soggy) tortilla scraps are reminiscent of matzoh brei on vacation. When served "con carne," strips of charbroiled steak add a lovely smokiness to the wonderfully unfussy dish.
There are no bloody Marias to pair with breakfast. Maya del Sol doesn't have a liquor license, so thirsty customers need to bring their own beer or wine. But the taqueria is planning to next month expand into an adjoining space, which comes with real walls and a roof.
Once indoors, Maya del Sol will probably pursue a liquor license, and adjust its schedule to serve dinner on weeknights.
The permanent structure, drinks and increased entree availability will no doubt enhance Maya del Sol's appeal to an even wider group of diners. But the taqueria's all-season charm and accomplished tacos don't need any tweaking.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
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