Open only a few months, Cantina Mayahuel sits near the intersection of 30th Street and Adams Avenue next door to the also recently opened Playa Gallery. If you frequent the area, perhaps the restaurant's etched-glass front windows have caught your eye. The look is so subtle and elegant, you'd expect a menu with equally elegant prices.
Not the case. Cantina Mayahuel is affordable and unpretentious. The restaurant does have a simple elegance, with its warm, golden-yellow walls, rustic furnishings and Dia de los Muertos art throughout—clearly a benefit of having an art gallery as a neighbor. A shrine to the restaurant's namesake, the Aztec goddess Mayahuel, sits near the back of the restaurant (Mayahuel is the mother of “the divine rabbits”—400 Mexican deities known for their love of drunken orgies). There are five tables inside: three tables for four and two round tables that fit six comfortably. There's also a bar with nine or 10 seats and a plant-filled outdoor patio with heat lamps and several more tables.
The menu fits on a single piece of paper and includes a generous selection of wine and beer as well as sodas and agua fresca.
Nothing on the menu is more than $11—tacos are $3.75 apiece, tortas are $7.50 and the chicken tamale with mole sauce is $4.50. Weekly specials—mole con pollo on Friday, Yucatan seafood stew on Saturday and barbacoa (meat slow-cooked over an open fire) on Sunday—top out at $11. All prices include tax. And that's pretty much the menu: tacos (chicken, steak, shrimp or mahi), tortas (chicken, steak or mahi) and the specials. For appetizers, you can choose from chips with salsa or homemade guacamole.
We started with a plate of chips and salsa, which comes either plain or “tropical.” We opted for the latter, a good choice—not much spice, but very fresh with pieces of papaya and mango.
We'd barely dug into the chips and salsa when the tamale arrived, laid out on a large banana leaf and looking unlike any tamale we'd seen before. Rather than the masa dough being wrapped around the filling, this tamale comprised a square of sweet-corn masa with diced chicken on top. Both were covered by a spicy, rich and chocolaty mole sauce. It's an outstanding dish.
(Right now the tamale's offered only on special. Perhaps if enough of you go to Cantina Mayahuel and ask for the tamale—don't all go at once; the place is small—maybe one day it'll become a permanent menu item.)
Even if the tamale remains only an occasional offering, my two companions and I will still go back for the chipotle chicken taco and the torta. The taco was something to behold, topped with shredded cabbage, a little crema and a bit of hot sauce all artfully set in two warm corn tortillas. We also tried the tasajo tacos, a Oaxacan-style preparation in which meat is sliced thin and, in this case, marinated in lime and chilies. While tasty, it wasn't quite as good as the chicken. The torta, on soft bollilo bread, was also outstanding, filled with the spicy chipotle chicken, sliced cabbage and carrots, crema, garlic mayo and some of the tropical salsa.
The one disappointment was the beans-and-rice side dish ($1.75)-one order is easily enough for two people, maybe three. The rice was plain white rice and bland. My gringo tongue welcomed a few bites of bland to cool off after the spicy chipotle chicken, but I would have traded the reprieve for just the slightest bit of flavor. The beans were so-so and could have used just a little more flavor.
Beans and rice aside, it's a pleasure to recommend Cantina Mayahuel. Too often, new restaurants in San Diego fail to impress, thinking they can get by on gimmicks and window dressing. Cantina Mayahuel doesn't resort to either and could be located in a shack for all I care—the food's that good.Cantina Mayahuel is open noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Monday.