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Wednesday, July 9, 2008 02:28 pm

Holy mole!

Maya Buffet cooks up an astonishing array of delicious Mexican

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Untitled Document You know the drill. The menus of central Illinois’ Mexican restaurants are pretty similar: guacamole, nachos, burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas, rice and beans, various entrées, a host of combination plates, and, inevitably, fajitas. Everything’s usually tasty, but there’s not much variation.
At the Maya Buffet, those Mexican-American and Mexican standards are on the menu. Those I’ve tried have been exceptionally well executed (even the beans and rice are better than average), and diners who order them won’t be disappointed. What sets the Maya Buffet apart, however, are the dishes that chef/owner/host Carlos DeLeon prepares from his native state, Chiapas. Chiapas is the southernmost state in Mexico, and, along with the state of Tabasco and those in the Yucatán Peninsula, site of the ancient Mayan civilization. Its cuisine, however, is closely linked to its western neighboring state, Oaxaca. The buffet is offered during lunch hours, but my first visit was on a Friday night. The restaurant’s liquor permit was pending, and only a couple of tables were occupied. DeLeon couldn’t have been a more gracious, friendly host. We asked for recommendations, and he pointed out his Chiapas specialties. We ordered a chile relleno and a tamale to start, then camarones al mojo de aja (shrimp in garlic sauce) and enchiladas con mole (“Mom’s” recipe). Before our appetizers arrived, DeLeon presented us with a dish of guacamole on the house. It was just right, freshly made and chunky, unlike many overly puréed local versions. The appetizers were also excellent. Chiles rellenos are tricky to make because the airy eggwhite batter easily becomes a greasy, soggy mess if not done properly, but this one was crisp and light. The tamale, made in house, was very good.
The shrimp dish was delicious — a generous portion of shrimp sauced with an equally generous portion of garlic sautéed to a deep golden color, giving it a wonderful toasty flavor unique to Hispanic cuisines.
The chicken enchiladas in mole negro (black mole) were astonishing. In spite of the “Mom’s recipe” designation on the menu, I’d been dubious about ordering them. Mole negro is one of the greatest glories of Mexican cuisine — and one of the great sauces of the world, period. Mole negro is traditionally served with chicken or turkey. In homes, the sauce is only served on very special occasions, probably because it is incredibly complex: Every recipe I’ve seen require 20 or more ingredients and multiple pages of instruction, involving several kinds of nuts, and seeds, different kinds of chiles, spices, and vegetables. Most famously, mole negro includes chocolate, but don’t expect anything remotely like a candy bar. It’s only one note in a symphony of nuanced flavors. That’s if it’s a good mole negro. Rick Bayless, owner of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants, cookbook author, PBS star, winner of James Beard Foundation awards for best U.S. Chef and best U.S. restaurant (the only Mexican chef and restaurant so honored), says in his book Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, “For years I collected black mole recipes that yielded mediocre results to the point that I wouldn’t offer it at our restaurants.” Since he did so, I’ve enjoyed it there several times, as well as at other Chicago restaurants known for mole. At restaurants here, however, any I’ve tried has been muddy and barely edible, probably from a jar. Not DeLeon’s version. It’s fantastic: slightly spicy, slightly hot, with fantastic depth of flavor. A couple of weeks later I had lunch at Frontera and ordered the chicken enchilada mole negro special for comparison. It was as good as always, but (and I have to admit I almost feel like a heretic writing this) DeLeon’s version is better — a bit more rustic, perhaps, but none the worse for it. It really is Mom’s recipe, too, as are other Maya Buffet specialties. Home cooking is still regarded as women’s work in Mexico, but DeLeon’s mother had other ideas: “My mom taught me to cook,” he says. “She told me that if I got married and my wife was lazy, I could cook for her.”
DeLeon didn’t plan on cooking professionally. He came to Springfield in 1991, following his sister who moved here when she married. After receiving a law-enforcement degree at Lincoln Land Community College, then working there as a security officer for nine years, he served as a policeman in several area communities. An on-the-job injury forced him to look for another career. Friends and family (now including his wife, Theresa, and two children) who’d enjoyed his cooking for years encouraged him to open a restaurant. Before opening his restaurant, DeLeon brought his mother here for two months to teach his other cooks, and her from-scratch home-cooking style is evident. She’ll be returning annually to make sure that everything’s still up to her standards. I’m not a fan of buffets (most offer too much food that’s too mediocre), but Maya Buffet’s is an exception. The selection is good but not so huge that preparation suffers. There’s always a nice soup. Sometimes the garlic shrimp dish is even included. I’m especially fond of the pollo encremado, chicken with mild poblano peppers and sour cream. It’s also available as a separate entrée both at lunch and dinner, as are other buffet items. Lunch business has been brisk, but nighttime has been slow, a situation that DeLeon hopes will change now that he’s gotten the liquor license. On my last visit I enjoyed his special margarita: a secret blend of citrus juices and a touch of Licor 43, a delicious vanilla-flavored Spanish spirit. The Maya Buffet will be offering other enticements to evening diners. There will be salsa dancers every other weekend, and DeLeon is planning to offer specials such as steak Maya, grilled with plantains and onions. I’m particularly looking forward to trying his pozole rojo, which he’ll offer in cold weather. It’s a soul-warming concoction of hominy and pork in a red chile-flavored broth, garnished with crunchy raw cabbage — one of my very favorite soups in the world. I’ve encountered a few misses at the Maya Buffet. The warming pan holding cheese enchiladas on the lunch buffet one day wasn’t hot enough to keep the cheese melted. One time the carnitas, the slow-simmered pork that is one of my favorite Mexican foods, was slightly chewy, though two other times it was as meltingly tender and delicious as it is in Chicago Mexican joints exclusively devoted to carnitas. The pollo en mole (chicken pieces in mole negro, not rolled in enchiladas) were swimming in so much sauce that they were in danger of drowning. It threw the dish out of balance, but I’m not really complaining: I was able to take home enough of the delicious, precious sauce for another meal for two. Flour tortillas, instead of corn, are routinely offered, because that’s what many diners prefer, although corn tortillas are available on request.
The hits far and away outnumber the misses, and DeLeon is constantly seeking ways to improve. He told me on one visit that he’d found a source of better tortilla chips, and, sure enough, on my next visit the chips were better. I doubt, however, that he can improve his mom’s mole negro.  

Maya Buffet, 131 E. Jefferson St., 217-541-6292.
Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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