It says something good about Louisville’s dining scene, I think, that our town’s Latino dining experiences go way beyond just plain Mexican. Not that there’s anything wrong with traditional pan-Mexican/Southwestern/Tex-Mex, mind you, but an hombre can’t live on tacos, rice and beans alone.
Never fear, Latino culinary diversity is here, and it has come to stay. What’s more, it comes in a full range of shapes and sizes, from excellent storefront fare to upscale casual, and a few of them indisputably rank among the city’s top tables. I’ll firmly place Chef Bruce Ucán’s Mayan Café in that category: You can find some of the best Mayan fare this side of Chichén Itzá here.
“But wait,” you might ask, “isn’t Mayan Mexican?”
Well it is, partly at least, but that’s like saying Louisville is Kentucky without zeroing in on cultural and culinary details that set us apart from the world outside the Watterson.
The ancient Mayan Empire lies at the far end of Mexico and beyond. Covering the tropical rain forests, hills and valleys of what is now the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala and environs, the empire lasted almost 700 years. The Mayans built great stone cities and monuments. They invented their own form of writing, were math wizards, and created an accurate calendar that kept good time until its recent massive fail when the world didn’t end in December as it had seemed to predict. The Mayan Empire mysteriously disappeared about 1,200 years ago, long before the Spaniards came. But during their heyday, the Mayans discovered or improved on some favorite foods: avocados, chocolate, chili peppers, squash, beans, tortillas, and just about all things corn.
At Mayan Cafe, Ucán offers an appetizing taste of the Mayan cuisines of Yucatan and Guatemala, heightened by his creative flair.
The seasonally changing bill of fare makes strong use of locavore produce and meats, celebrating specific regional producers by name. If you want to stick it in the eye of industrial agribusiness and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), enjoying dinner here is a fine way to do it.
Eating like a Mayan offers plenty of options. The current menu, with several vegan and vegetarian options clearly noted, includes 10 apps, which top out at $10, many of them well suited for small-plate grazing.
A dozen main courses start at $12 (for an outstanding veggie burrito or a fine Foxhollow Farm beef burger). Marking the high end at $22 are oven-roasted lamb with charred chile sauce or an organic salmon special with two Ucán trademarks: cuitlacoche cream sauce made with the inelegantly named but delicious edible fungus corn smut, and tok-cel, pan-roasted and spiced Mayan lima beans.
Full bar service includes creative cocktails and short but well-chosen and affordable wine and beer lists, plus intriguing house-made nonalcoholic beverages like horchata and tangy tamarind juice.
Empanadas ($6) were a work of edible art, a pair of golden-fried crispy turnovers stuffed with a smooth, earthy puree of black beans and goat cheese, served with a carefully curated batch of leaf lettuces and a swash of Ucán’s dark bronze, tangy-sweet mulato-ginger sauce.
Guacamole and chips ($7) might sound about as Mexican as Tumbleweed, but this Mayan rendition knocked competitors out of the park like a wayward jai alai pelota. Rich and creamy-yet-chunky, it’s served with crisp wedges of fried tortilla.
Cochinita Pibil ($19), pork marinated in tart orange juice and long roasted with Mayan spices, a trademark Yucatanese dish traditionally fire-roasted in banana leaves, is a signature item here, although I suspect Ucán substitutes an oven for the Mayan fire pit. No matter: This slow-roasted pig meat, in the genre of Cuban lechon asada or Southern pulled pork, was juicy and succulent, and the bright orange achiote sauce kicks it up a Mayan notch. It’s served with those addictive tok-sel limas and a thick masa pancake filled with black beans and Capriole.
The veggie burrito ($12) was amazing, one of those meatless dishes that sounds like it might be boring but then kicks you in the butt and chases you around the dining room, in a good way. A large, tender tortilla is folded around a healthy portion of diced potato, sweet caramelized cabbage and onion chunks, earthy black beans and spicy jalapeño jack cheese, plated atop a spicy tomatillo-chile sauce and topped with two soft-fried eggs and field lettuces. You can turn it into a meatful dish by super-sizing it with pork for $3, but that’s unnecessary. This veggie masterwork stands alone.
At $9 for a lunch order of three, Yucatec salbutes, small corn tortillas topped with choice of fillings like chorizo, black beans, goat cheese, beef, salmon, chicken or butternut squash, make a fine light lunch.
We finished our dinner with a well-fashioned coconut creme brûlée ($7) and rich, strong coffee ($2.50).
Dinner for two came to about $65; with a bottle of Chilean Errazuriz Carmenere ($36), the overall toll was $107.26, plus a 20 percent tip. Lunch for two came to $28.09 plus tip.
813 E. Market St.