“You don’t ever want people to feel dumb about how they’re pronouncing a name,” says Jason Branham, explaining why at the last minute he decided the name of his new restaurant, spelled Maiz, would be pronounced as “maize” instead of the Spanish “mah-EESE.” “Besides, maize is in the vocabulary here. So we figured people were going to pronounce it that way anyway.”
But he’s not happy to be leading off with a discussion of the name. “Whenever you have a place with a name that can be pronounced in more than one way, it seems like half the article is spent talking about it.”
Point taken. Moving on: other than feeling like he may have made a misstep with the name, thirty-six-year-old Branham seems unusually at ease for a first-time restaurant owner–especially one tasked with resuscitating a site that was once Herc’s steakhouse, then the moderately successful Smokehouse Blues, and most recently the disastrously short-lived Brahma Steakhouse.
Though he’s never owned his own place before, Branham has an experienced silent partner and a lot of potentially useful experience: “I have an econ degree from Albion–macro, micro, and accounting. I’ve worked in restaurants full-time and part-time.” And for the last six years, he’s held an important-sounding job with a long title involving commercial food equipment at NSF International (the enormous fortress on Dixboro Road is the world’s largest independent certifier of food and water safety programs), which gave him a leg up in setting up his own clean restaurant kitchen. (For more on restaurant kitchens–clean and not–see p. 30.) On the side, he’s done some restaurant consulting.
Branham’s experience in Mexico is limited to Cancun and the Baja peninsula, where he recently honeymooned with his new wife, Dawn, a PhD student at MSU. So why a Mexican restaurant, and why here?
“I’d be willing to bet that the majority of the Hispanics who work in area restaurants live within a mile radius of here.” He’s not the only one who noticed–Ole [financial] Services is across the street: “We’re doing some cross-marketing with them. In fact, the other day, a couple of Hispanic guys came in and looked at a menu, then went and opened the door, and”–he makes a “c’mon in” gesture–“about a dozen more of their friends walked in.” Hispanics who work in restaurants are likely to be, Branham reasons, tough critics and not rich, but he thinks he can pull it off.
One of his Mexican cooks “brought in the recipes he cooks at home: the rice, the flautas, the chilaquiles. Chilaquiles is just a simple workingman’s lunch that you see in Mexico: chips, spicy salsa verde, topped with an egg or some chicken. Jacqueline Rodriguez, another one of my cooks, brought in the chile rellenos recipe. But we added a little twist–we had the smoker from the previous restaurant, so we smoke our poblanos first.”
He also smokes corn on the cob, which turns up in a lot of the dishes, such as the sweet potato cakes.
Making the food good enough and cheap enough to attract the nearby Hispanic population is half the equation. “This is also the only full-service bar on Washtenaw between EMU and US-23. I’m going to have a minimum of three Michigan microbrews all the time,” as well as pricier, more polished specials like braised short ribs and Mexican seafood dishes.
He’s candid about where he does and doesn’t compete. “I’ve tried to make the best impact I can on the local economy. I use a local produce supplier. Our tortillas are made in Plymouth and delivered several times a week.” He uses a big distributor, but chose Gordon Food Service because it’s Michigan-based. “But with food in our price range–under $10 and from scratch–I can’t also be organic and free range and all that.”
Maiz, 4855 Washtenaw, 434-5554. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sun. noon-9 p.m. maizmexican.com