The traditional food of the Mayans has been so well integrated into Western culture, you may not be able to pick it out of a culinary lineup. But patrons of Maya Cafe & Cantina, on Route 9 in Fishkill, have had 10 years to learn that there is something special about the cuisine at this Mexican restaurant.
Diners from California or the southwest have been heard to describe the food at Maya Cafe — and its sister restaurant in Wappingers, Cafe Maya — as the most authentically Mexican food in the area. But the Maya eatery’s influence is more specific than that. More than just authentic, it’s different, with a subtle spin on the typical Tex-Mex fare that American consumers are more accustomed to. While drinking at the Cantina may feel like sitting yourself at an endearingly kitschy — and always bustling — roadhouse, the regular wait for a table speaks to locals’ love of the place.
Owner Luis Pinto hails from Mérida, capital of the Yucatán state in Mexico. Mérida — and the state of Yucatán as a whole — have historically been isolated from the rest of Mexico by the peninsula’s geography, creating a unique culture, as well as unique culinary traditions. Some of those were long-ago absorbed by Western culture, but Pinto’s long familiarity with Yucatán cooking brings a novel flair to the Hudson Valley.
“I’ve been doing this all my life,” Pinto says. “It was in my blood.” Pinto’s grandfather owned a grocery store in Mexico, where he helped out as a kid, before moving to the states as a teenager. He’s been in the restaurant business ever since.
Cafe Maya and Maya Cafe boast identical large menus with ample offerings for vegetarians, pescetarians, and carnivores alike. Guests can order their traditional tacos and burritos, but Mayan fare has much more complexity than you’d think. The food of the Yucatán is heavily influenced by its access to fresh seafood, and unsurprisingly, the Maya restaurants have become known for their fish tacos. Dishes like Cochinita Pibil make use of ingredients you won’t find at a Tex-Mex taqueria. Pulled pork is marinated in Seville orange juice with achiote (a spice derived from a plant native to the Yucatán) to create the dish, then slow cooked in banana leaves. Other traditional offerings on the Maya menu include Poc-Chuc, a pork fillet marinated in achiote, grilled and served with chorizo.
The Cantina’s full-service bar has its own secret recipe, though one that may be a bit less historically traditional: the Maya Margarita, a frozen margarita blended with handmade sangria. Other spins on the classic margarita are available, as well as pitchers of both margarita and sangria, complemented by a selection of wine and Mexican beers.
Pinto is dedicated to maintaining the authenticity of his dishes: he travels to Mexico twice a year to pick out the best spices. Homegrown habanero peppers are even used for the house habanero sauce. Guacamole is made tableside, to ensure freshness, a crucial part of the secret to its popularity. “We don’t mush or blend it up; we keep it chunky.” That, and a simple recipe based around fresh ingredients, has made the guacamole so popular that Pinto says he’s seen some customers eat it by the spoonful.
But when speaking about how blessed he feels about 10 years in business, the authenticity and uniqueness of the food are only part of what Pinto attributes to his success. The rest, he feels, is service. Pinto’s family helps out at the restaurants now, and Pinto himself can often be spotted wandering around in a sombrero, greeting customers and jumping into birthday celebrations. Pinto says he never tires of spending time in the restaurant: it’s his life, and he looks forward to coming in each morning. “You treat everyone like a family, get to know their names and what they like to eat. After 10 years you get to know people.”
On Sunday, May 3, at Maya’s Fishkill location, the restaurant is throwing a Cinco de Mayo celebration with entertainment for the whole family, including piñatas and donkey and pony rides. In addition, there will be another party two days later, on the real Cinco De Mayo (Tuesday, May 5). This event will bring back the mariachi band the restaurants are known for on weekends, as well as a number of giveaways. Patrons can try their hand at the Wheel of Maya for chances to win gift certificates, T-shirts, and other surprises.