Say It Loud at Maria Maria

Maria Maria

1370 Frazee Road, Mission Valley

“Black Magic” cooking? Often! Maria Maria is a small but growing chain co-owned by musician Carlos Santana along with a larger restaurant company (which also owns Bing Crosby in Fashion Valley). The menus are designed by chef-consultant Roberto Santibañez, whose name may be familiar if you read cooking magazines like Bon Appetit. (Our local branch’s kitchen is overseen by executive chef Brian Moran.) The restaurant’s first locations were in Walnut Creek and Danville, both far-eastern suburbs of San Francisco, where they must have been hungrily embraced by exhausted commuters longing for a local source of vibrant food in a lively, casual atmosphere. Then came Tempe, Arizona, and Austin, Texas. Now we have our own branch in Hazard Center on the site of the former Prego.

The front offers a spacious patio with fire pits, a handsome place to lounge, drink, meet friends for dinner, and/or eat in good weather. Inside, the bar (huge TVs, etc.) is on one side, sonically well segregated from the dining room on the other (yay!). The dining room walls are decorated with paintings by Irene Carranza and other major Mexican-American artists, Santana album covers, and memorabilia. Much of the seating is on comfortable leatherette banquettes. The music is loud but not conversation-killing, and to my age-fortyish posse’s tastes, all pleasing: ’60s hard rock and ’70s classic reggae (Santana, of course, but also Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, etc.), oldies but genuine goodies with no saccharine bubblegum or dastardly disco. The atmosphere shows a nice balance, high-spirited but not manic. Our fellow diners ranged from an aged singleton savoring his chicken mole casserole to a large family where the children were happy and good.

My posse du jour and I were in dire need of comfort and joy: Samurai Jim’s months of entrepreneurial overwork; Mark’s grad-school exam that afternoon; a death (expected but painful) in Ben’s family that morning; Fred’s totaled car (his brother’s Mercedes, and it wasn’t his fault!). Me? A doctor visit complete with bloodletting (Drac’s bride took five vials) and an achy-breaky flu shot. That is to say: “Ave, Maria Maria!” — the surprising answer to our prayers for good food, good vibes, good times after a bad day.

From the first light, crispy corn chip and daub of savory salsa, we began to perk up. There are three salsas, all savory: a delicious, mild pico de gallo sweetened by roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions; a medium-spicy chipotle, dark and velvety; and a fiery green serrano dip. (It’s this easy to make people happy. I still don’t understand why the last two new Mexican restaurants I tried, El Vitral and Barrio Star, withheld these simple pleasures.)

Tasty margaritas made with agave instead of sugar syrup also elevated our moods. Of the numerous choices, our favorites were the house specialty Maria Maria Margarita and the “hand-muddled” version with fresh orange juice. (The more expensive Cazadores looks good, too.) I suspect they’re somewhat light on alcohol, but they taste great. Fred ventured on a white sangria first. No to that one, but Jim took a shine to the very sweet blueberry mojito.

It’s a rare restaurant where I enjoy everything I sample, as I did here. I was doubtful about ordering braised duck tacos, since there’s no main-course duck on the menu, but they proved terrific. The tender, full-flavored shredded meat was wrapped in soft corn tortillas and swathed in a satiny, slightly spicy roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce. A refreshing mahi-mahi ceviche with mango had tender, half-inch chunks of fish with minced bits of mango stuffed into two halves of a medium avocado, its flesh scored for easy eating. There’s also a coconut ceviche with marinated snapper and a coconut-habanero sauce, which sounds appealing.

Seafood guacamole offers classic guac topped with lump crabmeat and shrimp salpicón (chopped and sauced). It’s an amusing upgrade on the plain version, and the avocado soothes your mouth should you order banana peppers stuffed with shrimp. (Ouch, those peppers are spicy!) The minced shrimp inside are tender, swathed in a creamy orange sauce colored by ground hot chilis and flecked with minced tomatoes, mini-minced cilantro, and flecks of chives. This is a fiery dish — our side of roasted corn on the cob was even more effective at soothing mouths than the guacamole. (Capsaicin, the chemical that makes chilis hot, isn’t affected by water. It’s soluble in alcohol, but it takes more alcohol than our cocktails provided. Starches, nuts, and dairy are reasonably effective alternate soothers.)

That roasted corn, from the “sides” menu, brought a foot-long ear semi-blackened on a grill, with a mild chili rub, a topping of cotija cheese, and a quartered lime to squeeze on. The chili and lime intensify their opposite, the sweetness of the corn. Fried ripe plantains topped with cotija cheese and Mexican crema (similar to a loose crème fraîche) were soothing, too, sweet from natural caramelization; juicy, not greasy, well-nigh perfect.

The appetizer portions are generous. Normally, sharing starters in a quartet, each person gets only a nibble of each. Here we were a fivesome, but there was enough left to take home for analysis under the mass spectrometer on my kitchen table. If you’re looking for a satisfying grazing meal, put this one on your list. An impressive range of choices includes quesadillas, baked cheese with toppings and tortillas, tacos, tostadas, flautas, totopos (nachos), soups, tortas, several salads, and a half-dozen substantial side dishes.

There was no fall-off in quality when we hit the entrées. The most nearly traditional dish was Red Snapper Veracruzana: A velvety fillet of fish, not a whit overcooked, was garnished with minced roasted tomatoes, olives, capers, minced poblanos, and pickled jalapeño slices in a light-textured pale sauce with a hint, perhaps, of clam juice. It’s plated over spinach mixed with several types of mushrooms (including fresh shiitakes) spiked with jalapeño. Not a totally classic version, but close enough for folk music and delicious. “Most Mexican restaurants overcook fish until it’s dried out,” said Fred. “Is that true in Mexico, too?” “Not along the coasts,” I said. “I’ve had great seafood in Guaymas, Veracruz, Isla Mujeres, and, of course, Ensenada. But inland, I don’t think people trust the trucks shipping the fish to keep them fresh, so maybe they overcook it for safety’s sake. And a lot of inexpensive local eateries use frozen tilapia, a lean, cheap, aquacultured African pond-fish which overcooks sort of automatically once it’s been frozen.” (But don’t give up on this ecologically virtuous species. Asian restaurants, buying it fresh, often do a fine job cooking it moist.)

We had to take a vote to decide between crab and shrimp enchiladas suizas (rich and gooey with Mexican crema) and a chili relleno stuffed with those seafoods (avant-garde and fruity). The winner, the relleno, was a large, lightly roasted poblano, unbattered to keep its fresh green flavor unsullied, stuffed with crab shreds, minced shrimp, and roasted tomatoes, with a dark sauce of pineapple-spiked guajillo chilis — sweet and spicy.

An equally dark sauce of a radically different flavor was central to the chicken and mole tortilla casserole (budin de mole, in its homeland). Shredded chicken and mole poblano (chocolate-based) sauce are layered with roasted poblano chilis, corn kernels, Mexican crema, and cheese, topped with dried tomatoes and pickled jalapeños. The menu claims that tortillas are among the layers, but where were they? I found not a trace. (In the peasant rendition, the dish typically has a high ratio of tortillas to everything else, absorbing the sauce such that it all turns rather dry.) The mole here is a very sweet, relatively simple version made with blackberry purée, compared to the ingredient-intensive, laborious originals of Puebla in southern Mexico — so the dish is inauthentic in every way. But it’s rich, deliciously easy eating.

So, too, the pork carnitas, which might more accurately be called adobo de puerco. These aren’t the familiar lard-fried, surface-crisped carnitas of folk repertoire, but small pieces of adobo-marinated braised pork shoulder with smoky black beans and salsa verde made with fresh tomatillos. Misnomered, perhaps, but luscious.

Surf and Turf was the biggest surprise. I wanted to taste the marinated skirt steak, but not as fajitas (boring) or in a burrito (fattening). On our menu, this seemed the only other main-course option. (The website menu has more offerings, including grilled steak with nopalitos, but not our local branch.) The waiter asked how done we wanted the meat. “As rare as possible,” I said — and to our whole group’s amazement, it was. Well seared but red inside, the juicy steak was topped with four medium shrimp and robed in a rich, dark sauce based on chilis pasillas (the dried version of poblano chilis), plated atop “enchiladas” of corn tortillas rolled around guajillo sauce.

What’s wonderful about the food here is the complexity of the flavors on every plate and the wide variety of chilis in sauces drawn from all the Mexican regional traditions. It’s not upscale French-Mex (e.g., Candelas) but offers a dazzling display of creativity and sophistication, with flawless execution at our meal. The dishes may not be quite authentic, but they’re often better — more like fiesta food, conceived by a chef who knows the traditions so well, he can gracefully use them as the bases of inspired updates. Our whole group really enjoyed the meal, which had not a single dud among 11 dishes.

Our waiter was obviously a pro. He didn’t need to write down our orders but memorized them accurately. And he automatically understood that we’d need a big plastic bag to take home all our ecologically correct, chic black cardboard takeout boxes.

Bottom line? Food-only costs for way too much food ran about $30 each (and now that you know about portion sizes, you’ll probably order less than we did, unless you’re anticipating a tasty second meal at home). We also lucked into some drink specials. Two rounds for five cost about the same as, say, two of the least-expensive bottles of wine at a typical better-neighborhood restaurant. So, gracias, Santana and associates — something tells me you’re onto something good. ■

Maria Maria

★★★½ (Very Good to Excellent)

Hazard Center, 1370 Frazee Road, Mission Valley, 619-574-6800;

HOURS: Monday–Thursday, 11:30 a.m.–11:00 p.m., Friday until midnight; Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–midnight; Sunday brunch, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $7–$15; soups, quesadillas, tortas, $7.50–$11; salads, $6.50–$14; entrées, $11–$19; sides, $2–$6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Creative, complex Mexican cuisine, well grounded in tradition. Interesting margaritas, plus mainly Mexican beers, reasonably priced wines, other cocktails.
PICK HITS: Seafood guacamole; duck tacos; roasted corn; fried plantains; Red Snapper Veracruzana; Surf and Turf; crab and shrimp-stuffed chiles relleños. Other possible good bets: coconut ceviche, steak taco, chicken “chivichangas,” seafood enchiladas suizas, braised short-ribs.
NEED TO KNOW: Free parking (valet at door, $4); live music Thursday–Saturday evenings. Happy hour 4:00–6:00 p.m. in bar, other nightly specials. Large portions, even of appetizers (great grazing!). Informal atmosphere with hard rock and reggae oldies played loudly but not painfully. Lots for lacto-vegetarians, including three entrées. Kiddie menu available.

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