Phil Lindeman
Special to the Daily

.Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen: A tequileria with terrific flavors and style

Across Colorado, taquerias are a dime a dozen. No wonder Richard Sandoval, the founding chef of Maya in Avon, calls his flagship restaurant a tequileria.

Yes, you read that right: tequileria, as in a sly play on taqueria, the word whispered by Mexican-food disciples to describe a small, no-frills taco shop known for otherworldly grub. Oddly enough, these hush-hush hotspots attract hordes of faithful foodies to small strip malls or wandering food trucks, but the setting hardly matters. Flavor is the superstar — forget the rest.

Sandoval is a fervent believer in traditional cuisine. The chef was born and raised in Mexico City, and he pulls generously from family recipes to show proper love for childhood staples: guacamole mixed by hand with lime and cilantro, corn tortillas made fresh on a traditional Mexican griddle, known as a comal.

Yet mingling high and low is a tricky proposition. After all, gourmet and taqueria rarely go hand in hand. But there’s a method to Sandoval’s apparent madness. No matter how satisfying, your neighborhood taqueria doesn’t boast the enticing complexity — and foodie-approved pedigree — of Maya. The starter menu is teeming with Mexican comfort foods, from ever-popular queso fundido to fresh, hand-breaded chiles rellenos.

Fittingly enough, tacos are wildly popular — the smoked brisket is a staple for happy hour crowds — but to truly sample Sandoval’s love for Mexican fare, try one of four guacamoles. Servers roam from table to table making custom creations with avocados, cilantro and onion, plus off-beat mixings like bacon and tuna tartare.

And guacamole is just the beginning. The whole menu favors subtle, intricate flavors over mouth-searing bombast, particularly for a dish like slow-roasted pork carnitas. Unlike a tortilla-swaddles burrito, it’s gorgeously plated. The shredded pork shoulder sits on a colorful blossom of blue corn tostadas, while an incredibly smooth avocado puree contrasts strikingly against medium-rare pork tenderloin. The flavors are just as unexpected, thanks to a silky layer of Mexican ricotta and the two succulent, slightly spicy versions of pork.

“We are experimenting with herbs like epazote, which is a strong herb that is native to Southern Mexico, but it seems to be growing great in our on-site garden here at The Westin Riverfront,” says chef Radames Febles.

Sandoval’s take on traditional Mexican dishes is second only to the restaurant’s vast, constantly changing selection of tequilas. On the first “official” day of margarita season (aka June 21), the bar boasted 167 different bottles, from stalwarts like Herradura and Cuervo Tradicional to Clas Azul Ultra, an añejo aged in oak barrels to tip the indulgence scales at $250 per shot.

Come summertime, a decent margarita is better than gold (or even a cold Modelo), and Maya’s selection of seven signature margs is the mother lode. The traditional is made from scratch with tequila, lime juice and agave nectar — nothing more, nothing less. It’s a shockingly fresh alternative to most sickly-sweet bar versions, while the Maya with tamarind, citrus and a chile pequin rim finds the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. That said, give it an extra kick with serrano-infused tequila. This is a tequileria, after all.


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The VailDaily Updated Aug 20, 2014 03:17PM Published Aug 20, 2014 01:43PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.