Ravenswood's El Maya and the plight of the midscale Mexican restaurant | Bleader

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ravenswood's El Maya and the plight of the midscale Mexican restaurant

Posted By on 02.22.13 at 10:21 AM

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On every corner, a mole
Putting a quasi-upscale Mexican restaurant half a block from Ravenswood's Mixteco Grill seems a bit like setting up your gourmet burger joint across the street from Kuma's Corner. But that's what relative newcomer El Maya has done. And if you think about it, there isn't a whole lot of uncolonized territory when it comes to midscale Mexican places on the north side. Just a bit northeast of Mixteco and El Maya, there's Cosina Grill. Not far to the south, in Lakeview, there's Frida's. Those two are just a subsection of a field that continues to expand, from old-timers like Old Town's Adobo Grill and Salpicon to 2013 Michelin star awardees Topolobampo—Rick Bayless's River North flagship—and the French-Mexican Mexique, in Noble Square. Six additional restaurants received Michelin's so-called Bib Gourmand, among them Bayless's Frontera Grill, northwest-side outlier Sol de Mexico, and Lincoln Square's humble little Los Nopales.

There's some volatility amid all this. The suburban Yucatecan restaurant Xni-Pec, also on the Bib Gourmand list, is closing at the end of the month. El Maya is located in what was formerly a spin-off of Logan Square's Chilapan; Frida's is a surviving spin-off of Andersonville's now-closed La Cucina de Frida. For years Frontera alum Geno Bahena popped up hither and thither all over town, leaving quite a few closed restaurants in his broad wake.

The trend continues, though. Wicker Park's Antique Taco, which opened just last summer, got its Michelin nod while still brand-new. Lakeview's Chilam Balam, another honoree, now has a sibling, Shaman, in West Town.

But we were at El Maya. The hostess was warm, the rooms brightly painted, the entrees solid—and I still kept thinking about a certain competitor's lamb with Oaxacan mole negro. It's rough out there.

El Maya, 1522 W. Montrose, 773-878-1882

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