Review: Mayan Manjar Yucateco Is a Knockout

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Mayan Manjar Yucateco 5209 West Mississippi Avenue, Lakewood 303-936-5562

The TV was on when I walked into Mayan Manjar Yucateco, a tiny restaurant that opened last spring in the former home of Maria Empanada. But all my attention was on the menu as I tried to decide if I wanted tamales, empanadas or the Yucatecan specialty called panuchos for lunch.

See also: A Closer Look at Mayan Manjar Yucateco

Only after I'd ordered -- with the help of a server who kindly suggested one of each, an option not listed on the menu -- did I glance up at the TV. Something about the people on the screen seemed familiar, but they were arguing in Spanish, so I lost interest and instead looked around the room, at the colorful tile tables, salt-and-pepper shakers painted like figurines, and heavy cinderblock walls emblazoned with the words "family owned."

In mere moments, the server reappeared with my refreshing cucumber-lemon agua fresca (the restaurant doesn't have a liquor license) and a complimentary basket of house-fried tortilla chips and refried black beans. Business was slow, so she sat down at an empty table to watch TV, and that's when it hit me: The actor was a young Sylvester Stallone. When the server got up to deliver my food, she did so -- in true Hollywood style -- to the inspiring strands of the Rocky theme song, "Gonna Fly Now." An underdog movie in an underdog restaurant. What could be more fitting?

Of course, it wouldn't be fitting if the food were bad. Rocky doesn't do all those one-arm push-ups and crunches to lose, does he? But the ad hoc combo I ordered that day, along with plate after plate of homestyle dishes I enjoyed on other visits, suggest that this restaurant is, like Stallone's iconic character, a winner.

Owned by Yucatán-born brothers Juan and Isaias Bautista and their wives, Araceli Reynoso and Neifi Marin, respectively, Mayan Manjar is one of the rare metro-area restaurants dedicated to the cuisine of the Yucatán. This means no tomatillos, no mole. Some Americanized items, such as tortas and plate-sized burritos smothered with tomato-cream sauce, have made their way to the menu to broaden its appeal; ignore them. Focus instead on the food the Bautista brothers grew up with.

"All the recipes here are like what my grandmother and my mom used to cook at my house," says Juan, who worked in restaurants in Denver for more than a decade before launching Mayan Manjar. "Panuchos, salbutes, empanadas -- we learned all those in Mexico from my mom."

Corn plays a starring role in nearly everything. Fresh masa is used to make several dishes, including pork- or chicken-stuffed tamales, steamed the Yucatecan way, in a banana leaf, and slathered with tomato sauce. But it is masa harina that the brothers, who run the kitchen, rely on when shaping empanadas: deep-fried half-moons stuffed with ground pork or chicken and topped with tomato sauce, cabbage and cotija cheese. Masa harina is also used to make open-faced salbutes, which are similar to tostadas. Topped with romaine, tomato, onion, avocado and your choice of meat, the crisp but pliable discs have enough chewiness that they don't sag, but not so much crispiness that they shatter when you bite into them. We couldn't decide which we liked better: the carne asada, with tender bits of steak marinated in garlic and lime, or the chicken with relleno negro, a knockout sauce that gets its ebony hue from red chiles roasted until black in a hot oven. Both fillings, along with a handful of others such as the pineapple-sweetened pastor, can also be had on small tacos made with housemade corn tortillas, a steal at 99 cents.

Salbutes could easily be mistaken for panuchos, another open-faced dish -- until you take a bite. Tucked in a slit in the corn tortilla is a thin layer of black beans, which gets sealed in fresh masa as it cooks on the flat-top. I've never been a fan of stuffed-crust pizza, but there's something quite winsome about this Yucatecan version, which is finished with chicken and a host of salad-like accoutrements: large leaves of romaine, tomato wedges, onion and sliced avocado. Variety may be the spice of life, but a platter of three panuchos makes for a pretty good life, too, or at least a terrific lunch.

Keep reading for more on Mayan Manjar Yucateco.

Sopes Yucateco are similar in nature, with a variety of meats and vegetables atop a masa harina base. But this Yucatecan specialty arrives with the swagger of Rocky Balboa as he takes to the ring. Deep orange from achiote paste -- the same ingredient behind cochinita pibil, the best-known dish of the Yucatán -- the masa is shaped into a thick disc, which Juan presses with a glass until a lip forms around the edge. Started on the flat-top and then fried, the striking crust is heaped with beans, your choice of meat (shredded chicken, pastor or cochinita pibil) and finished with tomatoes, shredded cabbage and cotija. Order it with the spectacular pibil, made of tender pulled pork rubbed with sour oranges and achiote paste, and you'll have the Yucatecan answer to North Carolina barbecue.

The dish is authentic in every way but one: In the Yucatán, it would be topped with habanero-spiked onions, not cabbage. "We don't make it here like that because a lot of people don't eat it that spicy," says Juan. Habanero salsa, which could easily be mistaken for Italian dressing, is offered on the side for those who do like it hot. Even those who don't should try a dab of the salsa, since it varies in intensity depending on the day.

Many customers are Spanish-speaking, so if your Spanish isn't good -- or, like mine, is nonexistent -- you might find yourself trying to convince a skeptical server that you really do want your food that hot, as often happens at Thai eateries. Well-meaning servers at Mayan Manjar made assumptions about my preferences, smothering my burrito with tomato-cream sauce rather than the standard, spicier red chile, and steering me to the flan over the dulce de camote Maya, a traditional dessert of candied sweet potatoes, sliced and served cold. Like sweet-potato pie without the crust, the deceptively simple dish promises good things to those who are willing to take the risk.

The same could be said about the restaurant itself, which rewards anyone willing to walk in the door. Indeed, the biggest challenge the place seems to face is getting its name out there. Some customers wander in because they're looking for Maria Empanada and decide to stay after hearing it moved to South Broadway. Others might be en route to well-known Tamales Moreno down the street and pull in when they realize they'd rather sit down to eat than get tamales to go. But once you've tasted Mayan Manjar's food, you'll believe in the power of the underdog.

Select menu items at Mayan Manjar Yucateco Cucumber agua fresca $2 Panuchos plate $8.50 Salbutes plate $8.50 Empanadas plate $7.99 Tamales plate $9 Sopes Yucateco $8.99 Tacos $.99 Smothered burrito $7.99 Dulce de camote Maya $3.50

Mayan Manjar Yucateco is open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Find more information at facebook.com/mayanmanjar.

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