Mayan Café offers reminder of depth of Louisville’s culinary scene

Mayan Café has been serving NuLu for more than a decade. | Courtesy of Mayan Café

With Louisville’s ever-shifting culinary scene, new restaurants seem to pop up everywhere. New out-of-the-way finds await, as well. Sometimes, it’s easy to get distracted and forget about those established restaurants that helped bring the scene to where it is.

Particularly in NuLu, which has grown by leaps and bounds the last decade or so, we have seen the emergence of restaurants like Toast on Market, Decca, Feast BBQ, Royals Hot Chicken, Garage Bar, Grind Burger and more. And then there’s Mayan Café, which you might say was NuLu when NuLu wasn’t cool.

Veggie burrito | Photo by Kevin Gibson

For more than a decade (11 years in January to be precise), Mayan Café has been serving top-quality fare, and for more than 20 years, Chef Bruce Ucán has been selling his unique dishes on East Market.

Last year, my girlfriend Cynthia told me she’d never been to Mayan Café and wanted to go for her birthday. Let’s just say it was a tad belated, but I finally made good on her wish.

It reminded me that when I’m busy chasing new food, I should be careful not to ignore the tried and true of Louisville.

Luckily, I made reservations, because the place was quite busy for a Monday night. We were seated immediately and quickly had waters and menus placed before us. As we perused the menu, we both realized pretty quickly what we wanted for our entrees. We discussed several appetizers, and then agreed upon an old standby in guacamole and chips.

The guac, topped with grilled corn, and fresh chips were a fine starter but didn’t really foreshadow what was ahead. Cynthia opted for the vegetable burrito, along with a side of malanga cake, made with a South American root vegetable.

I was tempted by the oven-roasted rabbit but couldn’t help ordering tikin-xic, or wild-caught silver carp. The dish is a localized version of a Mayan classic. I also added a side of tok-sel lima beans, because that’s what you do when you go to Mayan Café.

Tikin-xic | Photo by Kevin Gibson

As the restaurant buzzed, we chatted and within a few minutes, our entrees came out, piping hot and beautiful to behold. The burrito was drizzled with sour cream and sitting atop tomatillo sauce. On top were two sunnyside-up eggs, which strays a bit from the veggie theme. Still, that’s not a complaint.

Tok-sel lima beans | Photo by Kevin Gibson

My silver carp dish was covered with a stunning, orange-brown achiote-lime sauce and served atop black rice, with fried plantains. Not one, but two, medium- to large-sized carp steaks were my reward for ordering the tikin-xic.

Cynthia quickly raved about the burrito, noting that she too often is served veggie burritos and tacos that come across as just random vegetables thrown into a tortilla. But I had a couple of bites of her meal, and it’s clear Ucán created the burrito with purpose, using potatoes, caramelized cabbage, grilled peppers and black beans.

The eggs and flavorful sauce helped take it over the top, and while pork can be added for a couple bucks, I agreed with Cynthia that it worked quite nicely sans meat. Meanwhile, the malanga cake was a nice, lightly seasoned complement to round out the veggie-centric meal.

My entrée rivaled the delicious rabbit, which is a Mayan Café favorite. The flaky, dense, mild-tasting fish resembles swordfish in texture but is more like tilapia or whitefish in flavor, and made a satisfying vehicle for the delicious sauce. Even after I was full, I kept eating, right down to the last few grains of thick rice.

Chocolate on Chocolate | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Birthdays usually mean cake, and Cynthia’s intrigue with the Chocolate on Chocolate led to our meal being extended by a few minutes. It was a good call, as this rich, decadent finisher nearly made her stand up and applaud.

I enjoyed a couple of bites as well and might have stood up with her had she done so. Made with chocolate avocado mousse and chocolate chili sauce, the dessert also was topped with mango papaya puree and mint leaves.

It was a meal that left me wondering why I’d waited so long to return and feeling determined not to wait so long next time. Of course, there are plenty of places that fit that category in Louisville. Perhaps I’ll make a schedule.

Mayan Café, located at 813 E. Market St., is open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m. on Friday; and 5-10:30 p.m. on Saturday.