El Paso, TX
Restaurant Web Site: Cafe Mayapan
Café Mayapán is more than just a restaurant, it is part of a nonprofit organization that provides job training and neighborhood revitalization as well as being part of a complex of businesses located in an old warehouse. The idea of Café Mayapán was to employ some of the displaced workers from the old factory where the restaurant is now located. Next door is a mercado selling arts and crafts, with several community organizations housed elsewhere in the building.
Café Mayapán knows it is in a tough neighborhood to serve dinner, and is only open on Monday through Saturday at the lunch period. I do not think many customers come to Café Mayapán strictly out of sympathy for the cause it represents, rather they are coming for some of the highest quality Mexican food in El Paso. I have to admire them for not serving the same type of food that can be found at numerous restaurants throughout the city. El Paso style food has its merits with hot chiles and robust flavors, but it is not the only type of Mexican food that exists. The style of food served in the interior of Mexico is quite hard to find on the borderland, but it is the theme of Café Mayapán. I cannot identify a specific state in Mexico as the source for the recipes used, instead I think they probably represent the varied background of the women involved in La Mujer Obrera (the organization which runs the restaurant and the non-profit organization).
The interior is quite spacious and probably could accommodate many more tables than are available, but room has been left for a stage where mariachis perform on Fridays and other groups may occasionally provide entertainment. The restaurant uses traditional wooden furniture with comfortable pads to make it easy to spend a leisurely meal. A counter is available for takeout, but those wanting a regular meal can order at the table. Service is fast, as I found out when I have had limited time for lunch.
All customers are given complimentary Chips that offer the first sign of the quality and home made flavor found at Café Mayapán. These are thick and about as non-greasy as you can find.
The Salsa was not memorable in terms of the local style made with New Mexico chiles. It was very good and fresh, though, being made with green chiles and a mix of spices commonly served in the interior of Mexico.
To me a sign of a good Mexican restaurant is that it serves good soup. At Café Mayapán the soups go beyond good, they are representative of the traditional soups found in central Mexico and are as much of an educational experience to borderland residents who are generally limited to caldo de res as they are taste treats. Several varieties are available and they make up a good part of the menu. This does include Caldo de Res, and while it is a popular soup on the border, the quality is very good compared to most (the vegetables are not cooked to the point of being mushy as they are in some border style soups).
Soups are available in two sizes, with the smaller one meant to be an appetizer while waiting for the meal. I ordered the Caldo Tlalpeño that consisted of chicken, guacamole, vegetables, and a chipotle chile. There were no tortilla strips as in the typical tortilla soup, but otherwise this one was very similar. One of the notable features of it, though, was the fresh vegetables that were fresh and crisp, not tasting as if they had been cooked all morning.
Caldo Tlalpeño is a dish from the Veracruz area, and because of migration patterns from Mexico usually finds its way to restaurants from Laredo north a lot more frequently than to El Paso and the western part of the United States. I have found chipotle chiles in other El Paso restaurants, but as far as I know Café Mayapán has the only caldo tlalpeño to be found in the area.
Sopa Azteca is made with tortilla chips and noodles, with the same spices included in the caldo tlalpeño. Missing are the vegetables, but it is good to have two versions of the same basic soup. The chipotle chile is something I have not found in all El Paso versions of tortilla soup.
A soup that may be more familiar to borderland residents is Caldo de Fideo made with spaghetti-like noodles and a red colored broth. The one shown in the picture is a large bowl with several albondigas meatballs that have been a traditional border favorite, but are not served at a large number of restaurants because they seem to be hard to prepare correctly. To me it is hard to find any ground beef I really like but this was good. I am not sure if this dish represents cooking from the interior of Mexico or the border, but it shows that Café Mayapán has a little bit of everything.
Puebla Style Mole
Pechuga de Pollo en Mole Poblano is a chicken breast served with a green mole poblano for one of the restaurant’s “lighter and healthier” dishes (other than the fact it has such a large piece of chicken that it might be too much for lunch). This is the only green mole I have found in El Paso, but I believe Café Mayapán also offers the more familiar brown mole. I think this is a good dish with which to become initiated to Mexican mole. If it turns out the green mole is not your thing, there is enough chicken breast to make a good meal, and the mole can be scraped off. If you find the sauce as satisfying as I do, though, there is enough to cover every bite of chicken.
Enchiladas are not as big in the interior of Mexico as they are on the border, and they tend to be less spicy. An example of this is the Enchiladas Suizas which were mild compared to El Paso versions, although they did have red chile. The common feature of all suizas enchiladas is that they have sour cream, and I liked this one because it was the Mexican style crema. Everything about this seemed more interior style to me than border style.
The restaurant serves several flavors of agua fresca drinks including Sandía, a drink made of watermelon juice with no pulp included. I think for the best example of these more unusual drinks I would suggest Flautas Tepalca in Canutillo, but the one I tried at Café Mayapán was very good. These drinks tend to be seasonal, with lemonade being something that can be made all year. To me it is not the flavor that matters as much as having a freshly made traditional drink to go along with an equally fresh and traditional meal.
The home made Tortillas were one of the best aspects of the meal and provided a flavor that cannot be found in pre-packaged tortillas.
The real strength of Café Mayapán is the consistent quality as well as the menu that offers dishes not normally found in El Paso. The whole experience of having excellent soup, drink, chips, salsa, and tortillas confirmed to me that this is one of the best Mexican restaurants in El Paso. It is too bad the restaurant is only open for lunch (and closed Sunday), but I do think it is worthwhile trying to make it.
The food at Café Mayapán is not terribly spicy, being more representative of traditional Mexican food from the interior than the spicy chiles more common near the border. I think the spiciest items I have had were the sopa azteca and the caldo tlalpeño.
In some ways Café Mayapán is not consistent in what it serves. There is a menu that does not change, but they also have seasonal items which are often times the best choices to get (I know some of the drinks are seasonal). Sometimes they also feature special dishes from different states in Mexico, but the availability of these items is not very predictable. Most of the time when I go they just have the regular menu.
The high quality of the food, though, does not seem to be because of a plan to make this a gourmet restaurant. Rather, I think most of the dishes come from recipes the women brought with them from Mexico. The restaurant is owned by a non-profit organization and most of the clientele are working people. The food is not expensive, but it is good because it tastes home made.
The down side is just that it is not as professional as some restaurants–they do not always have the same items, the selection of core items on the menu is somewhat limited, and the availability of some special dishes is hard to predict. The down side is also one of its strengths, though–the food here is much like what you would have in a Mexican household.
Cuisine: Mexican Interior
Hours: 11 am to 3 pm Mon-Fri (8 am to 3 pm on Sat.)
Smoking: No smoking
Most Recent Visit: Dec. 6, 2017
Number of Visits: 3
Best Items: Caldo Tlalpeño, Pechuga with Green Mole, Sandía Drink