“Because Mexico has 64 kinds of corn!” she says, clearly pleased to share her affection for the new restaurant in Logan Circle from Alam Méndez Florián, the Oaxaca native behind the esteemed Pasillo de Humo in Mexico City.
The bartenders pick up where the hostess (reluctantly) leaves off. Each introduces himself, one shares his résumé and another tells a little story about how he came to the United States from Colombia and was horrified when a server at his school cafeteria in Houston offered him a choice between a burrito and a hamburger. “Where I’m from, little donkeys are called burritos!” We nod and laugh and compliment the talent behind the mezcal margarita. By my last visit, I feel as if the name has been explained 64 times.
When it comes to service, Maiz64 wastes no time in trying to win diners over — with what constitutes bear hugs. Admittedly, my initial visit coincides with the first week of operation for the restaurant, which replaces the Belgian-themed B Too. Just know going in that servers can become as much a part of the meal as anyone with whom you’re actually dining.
The first taste from the visible kitchen is saucer-shaped tortillas tagged by a bowl of dark salsa made from charred eggplant, tomatillo and jalapeño. The gratis dip is a far cry from the smoke-dominant salsa I shied away from at Urbano 116, the chef’s highly anticipated but inconsistent Mexican restaurant in Alexandria. (Introduced in 2019, it morphed into a Tex-Mex source following the pandemic.) Méndez Florián seems dedicated to the success of Maiz64. His general manager, sous-chef and pastry chef all hail from Mexico. And he hopes to spend the bulk of his time in Washington, even as he retains Pasillo de Humo. “I must be here,” he says.
His latest creation incorporates local ingredients with Mexican techniques. Corn, however, is nonnegotiable. The chef relies on a trio of heirloom varieties from Mexico for his cooking. So important is corn to his country and culture that the sacred Popal Vu, or “book of the people,” has the Mayan man originating from corn masa.
The designers — husband and wife Rosendo Vargas and Hanae Matsumoto — were determined to show the range and sophistication of Mexico at Maiz64. “A lot of interiors go directly to cactus, sombreros and tequila,” says Matsumoto, co-owner of Fireant design firm in Mexico City. Maiz64 opens with front windows that capture a blue-tiled cooking area and moves on to a dining room whose mammoth communal table is parota wood in the shape of the state of Minnesota, or so it struck this native from his stool at the bar. Opposite the kitchen, a rainbow of corn cobs poking out of braided husks are displayed in acrylic frames along the wall. The accents, including a yellow neon depiction of corn alongside the great table, signal the restaurant’s theme without resorting to the design equivalent of bullhorns.
The free salsa is leagues better than the flat, $14 guacamole. Ease into dinner with something fishy instead, perhaps the ceviche composed of firm slices of yellowtail, buttery avocado and fine threads of fried sweet potato atop a bright yellow “tiger’s milk” marinade that does what you expect it to: (practically) roar with heat. The regular tables at Maiz64 are oak and broad, something of a luxury as more food arrives and you’re still enjoying fried shrimp plied with charred tomato sauce and pickled red cabbage.
Taco time. Suckling pig is a fabulous bar of meat, crisp in parts and soft in others, flavored with orange, oregano and thyme and garnished with minced onions and dots of avocado puree. The beautiful wedge perches on a purple corn tortilla pressed and cooked on the comal, or griddle, that diners see when they enter the restaurant. An even showier taco finds char-marked broccoli stems — picture upside-down little trees, dusted with shaved cashews — rising from a swipe of black mole on a blue corn tortilla. How to eat the construction? Carefully. Still, I love the combination of soft corn, smoky broccoli and a mole informed by a garden of chiles, ground nuts, raisins for sweetness and vegetable ash for color.
The definition of comfort and finesse is the custardlike corn tamal staged on a tangy pool of goat cheese and crowned with spiky greens.
Moments like the tacos and tamal make me wonder if Maiz64 might fill the void left by Poca Madre, the much-missed Mexican experience created by Victor Albisu. The chef’s contributions to fine dining included octopus set on a blonde-with-white-chocolate-and-plantains mole and an “everything” infladita, inventive cooking that resulted in a three-star (“excellent”) review.
Moving deeper into the menu at Maiz64 reveals dishes, entrees in particular, that approach what Washington lost.
Extend a welcome to pan-roasted duck, three blushing bars of breast meat, its skin scored and audibly crisp. The pink duck is set off with dollops of green apple puree and saffron-yellow plantain chips, which you’d scoop up by the bag if only bags of the delicious garnish were sold. Broadening the pleasure is a side of sweet potato atop a mole called manchamantel, or “tablecloth-stainer,” which the chef coaxes from grilled pineapple, fried plantain and sauteed apple along with the expected nuts and chiles.
Pork belly sliced over a lake made green and luscious with epazote, poblano, cilantro and jalapeño is both a looker and a taster. Like the duck, the crisp meat is trailed by something to keep your fork busy and your mouth happy, a refreshing toss of cactus and radish. Red snapper grilled over charcoal yields another draw. The crisp marinated fish comes with dots of chile mayonnaise that excite the eating.
Maiz64 provides the uncommon chance to try Mexican wine. Among the eight bottles, a fine bridge for the plant-based and seafood dishes is the refreshing, floral-fragrant (all-grenache) rosé from Monte Xanic, a producer in the Mexican state of Baja California.
My preferred finish involves neither chocolate nor churros but goodness and light in the form of panna cotta, tufts of sponge cake, cheese ice cream and strawberry sorbet. Never mind that it’s autumn. You want “strawberries and cream” here.
All the attention at Maiz64 reminds me that too much service has the same effect as too little. Sharing some background or checking in (once) is one thing. Staff members here feel the need to check in after Every. Single. Dish. “Is it good?” they pepper diners. “Do you like it?” When a supervisor bends down on his knee to inquire about the meal and asks “Is there anything else we can do?” the bluntest person in my posse says, “Yes, you can get off your knees.” General manager Cesare Sanchez likes to think of the restaurant’s brand of hospitality as in keeping with the spirit of his homeland. In Mexico, he says, “we really like to take care of people, treat them like a king.” The sentiment is sweet, but honestly, something more relaxed feels right in an ongoing pandemic.
Too good to leave behind, unfinished pork belly and duck breast are whisked away to be packed up. They’re returned by the effusive hostess in a sturdy and colorful plastic tote — the most eye-catching leftovers bag in recent memory. “You can reuse it at the beach!” she says as she hands over the food. On the sidewalk, the hostess joins in my goodbye to a friend. She can’t help herself.
Maiz64 1324 14th St. NW. 202-450-4962. maiz64.com. Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $12 to $16, main courses $18 to $39. Sound check: 80 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: A step at the entrance necessitates the use of a portable ramp, stowed near the bar; restrooms are ADA-compliant.
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