by Lee Lawrence
From the September, 2018 issue
Like an overblown garden flower--a bit loud, brash, and over-the-top--Maiz Mexican Cantina sprawls across several storefronts and a couple of patios in Ypsilanti's Depot Town. The theme is Mexican-inspired food and drink, but what they're really selling are quantity and value in an atmosphere fueled by regular margaritas in jumbo glasses and grandes measured in bathtub pours. Baskets of wafer-thin chips in hothouse colors hold customers steady while they peruse the lengthy menu of mostly oversized plates. For those with a hearty appetite, an ability to hear over the din, and an attitude satisfied by quantity over finesse, Maiz is the winner's bouquet.
And many have declared it a winner! Four of us arriving at 7 p.m. on a summer Wednesday had a half-hour wait. "What's going on?" I asked the hostess. "Nothing, it's always like this." "'Cuz it's so nice out?" "Nooo, it's pretty much like this all the time." Really--folks love this place.
I had to admit my grapefruit margarita, made with fresh juices while I waited at the bar for my friends, was just right, though I could barely sip without spilling from the birdbath glass. Later, the baked avocado--three halves stuffed with salsa and a blanket of Muenster and roasted until the cheese was gooey--began to seriously satiate after the baskets of chips we'd already received. But there were more good things ahead to eat--more than we could eat.
Already quite generous, many of the entrees come with a selection of two sides, from the typical beans or rice to a half ear of Mexican street corn drizzled with crema and chili powder or a quinoa salad. My camarones a la diabla, only $14.99, arrived with nearly a dozen extra-large shrimp simmered perfectly in a smoky chipotle tomato sauce. Equally extraordinary in size and value was my friend's fish tacos, topped with mango salsa, slaw, and chipotle cream, which, after a lazy-Susan passing of all our entrees, she declared the table champion. Also competing for
that evening's best-in-show were a good rendition of chiles rellenos, the poblanos smoked and stuffed with meaty pork carnitas, and a plate of less compelling but liberally garnished fried flautas filled with potato-zucchini hash.
Needless to say, dessert was not in the cards that evening, nor was it any other visit; take-home boxes of leftovers were our compensation. But then the selection of flan, fried Oreos, and fried ice cream sundae doesn't exactly promise relief from the richness of the main menu.
Two midweek lunches were quieter, though the restaurant was certainly not unpopulated. The menu and the baskets of chips remain the same, but you might be less likely to indulge in an "amaizing" pitcher of margaritas. (The restaurant uses the Wolverine rather than the Spanish pronunciation for its name.) But happy hour begins at three ...
For our first lunch, I ordered what most appealed to me--a mini tostada sampler from the starter section and a house salad of shredded romaine and iceberg lettuces, pickled onions, smoked corn, and queso fresco. The salad, mostly a platter of lettuce, was pleasant until the toppings ran out. But the tostadas, absolutely piled--one with a piquant shredded chicken tinga; another with deliciously crispy, fatty, meaty pork carnitas; and the final round with a chunky combination of avocado, smoked corn, black beans, and pico de gallo--were wonderful. I shouldn't have finished them, but I couldn't stop. My husband's grande quesadilla with shrimp was indeed enormous--stuffed with
extra-large, perfectly cooked shrimp, plenty of avocado and peppers, and enough cheese to bankrupt a dairy. Midway through the dish, though, he had to stop eating, the richness and quantity overwhelming him.
Believing we'd learned some lessons about ordering at Maiz, we chose "lighter" at our next lunch--sweet potato cakes, guacamole, and a chipotle salmon salad. The cakes--grated sweet potatoes mixed with black beans and smoked corn--though, again, a lot of food, didn't spark much interest in either of us, and the guacamole, quite chunky and generous, was a bit bland. My husband enjoyed his salmon salad--the chipotle cream adding zest to the broiled fillet, mango salsa, avocado, and quinoa. And again, for what I would guess was an eight-ounce fillet, a bargain at $12.99, with leftovers he finished the next day.
Service during our three meals ran the gamut from annoyingly nonchalant to efficient and friendly but generally leaned toward the latter. And it would not be an easy job at Maiz. Servers have to be familiar with the extensive menu, which our visits barely scratched. (Untested were more starters and salads; soups; a whole array of tacos--American and Mexican--enchiladas, fajitas, and burritos; and a liberal sprinkling of other entrees.) And during busy times they have to hustle, covering vast distances in the labyrinth-like space, acting as reluctant emissaries when the bar or kitchen runs out of items ordered by their tables, slinging trays laden with food. Much like the food, Maiz servers get the job done. After all, Maiz is not about finesse, a perfect rose in a crystal vase. It's a supermarket bouquet, a splashy mix of colors and types, big and always a bargain.
Maiz Mexican Cantina
36 E. Cross St.
Sun. & Mon. noon-10 p.m., Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m. (kitchen closes at midnight)
Starters, salads, and soups $3.99-$12.99; entrees $8.99-$17.99
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