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Review: Maria Maria - Tempe, AZ (w/ photos!)

Seth Chadwick Jul 10, 2008 08:13 PM

After the decision to get married, I decided to spend some time with my family and inform them of our decision. Since J. and I had actually been engaged since 2003 (in a stunning proposal I did atop the Eiffel Tower… in Las Vegas), the question was only when would the wedding be. Well, the wedding will be in California in November, but I won’t be reviewing the food at the reception.

With those two issues out of the way, I thought I would take Mom and Dad out to dinner to get their blessing on the idea. Mom, of course, simply encouraged me to take Dad out to dinner so she could watch her “Law & Order” marathon. Dad was quick to take up my invitation to have dinner, but seemed somewhat disappointed that I suggested we go somewhere other than a Thai restaurant.

“Well, what do you have in mind?” he inquired. I suggested we try a new restaurant in Tempe that was owned by famed guitarist Carlos Santana. At this point, my mother’s ears perked up because she always thought that when I listened to Santana’s music in my teens, I was actually smoking pot. I have no idea where she got that idea, but moms are moms.

Dad and I got into the car and made our way to the Tempe Marketplace on the corner of McClintock Road and the 202 Loop. We pulled up to the entrance to the interior ring of the mall and parked. We walked into the restaurant Maria Maria and I was very pleased with the black and gold colors that filled the open space.

We were seated immediately at a table/booth combination and handed menus. Dad was very relaxed and was surveying the menu, hoping to find something stellar. After a few minutes, a member of the busing staff filled our glasses with water and served us a big bowl of chips along with three sauces: a mild salsa, a spicy hot sauce and a medium tomatillo sauce. The chips were pleasant enough, but I would have preferred them a bit hotter and a bit less salty. Still, they were pretty good. Dad liked the sauces that were served with the chips. The salsa was the best of the three because of its freshness. I didn’t like the hot sauce because it was completely one-dimensional and the tomatillo sauce was fairly plain.

Our server approached and took our drink order. Dad and I both had Iced Teas ($2.50 each) and then also decided to order our appetizer. We agreed that the Baked Cheese with Chicken, Ham and Chorizo ($9.00) would be a good selection and our server quickly retreated from the table. About two minutes later, she returned with the drinks and then took the rest of our order. Dad had the Chicken Fajitas ($15.00) and I had the Pork Carnitas ($15.00).

After placing our order, Dad mentioned how much he liked the interior. I was glad the design was not overdone with Santana memorabilia thus making the restaurant a shrine to the band. Instead, it was somewhat minimalistic with a warehouse feel, but with enough decorations to keep it from being sterile. The addition of the huge plasma screen TV on the wall showing music videos fit right in without being distracting.

Dad and I were both concerned that the noise level would overpower the evening, but the middle of the space had been dissected with a row of booths that provided enough of a break in the design to muffle some of the noise. Dad and I didn’t have a problem talking at all through our meal, even when the place was hopping.

http://i28.photobucket.com/albums/c208/sethchadwick/mariacheese.jpg

Our Baked Cheese with Chicken, Ham and Chorizo arrived and I was pleased with the size and temperature level. The cheese was bubbling hot and the serving was more than enough for two. I was a bit disappointed that we were only offered three small flour tortillas for all that cheese, but our server did say that if we wanted additional tortillas, all we needed to do was ask. The cheese itself was a bit on the sharp side and very flavorful. The addition of the chicken, ham and chorizo were a nice touch, but the sharpness of the cheese and the spiciness of the chorizo masked any flavors the chicken and ham had. The dish was good and completely satisfying, but it really didn’t have that wow factor.

As we were in the middle of our appetizer, our entrees arrived. This was a big disappointment. I am a stickler for this because I don’t want to have to race through my appetizer to make sure I get to have my entrée before it reaches room temperature. We made space on the table for the entrees and the runner who brought the food seemed oblivious that, perhaps, the dishes should have been returned to the kitchen and kept hot until we had finished our appetizers.

Dad’s Chicken Fajitas were solid. The mixture of large chunks of chicken, peppers, and onions was substantial in size and was blazing hot. On top of them sat a pile of watercress and cilantro and some crumbled queso fresca. Dad really liked the taste of the marinated chicken and applewood smoked bacon and I was very happy that the vegetables were tender crisp and had plenty of flavor. Dad was also happy they had brought more tortillas since we had run out with the appetizer. It was a good rendition of Chicken Fajitas, but it wasn’t stellar. The chipotle cream sauce that accompanied the dish was fairly flavorless.

http://i28.photobucket.com/albums/c208/sethchadwick/mariacarnitas.jpg

My Pork Carnitas were also quite good, although I was wishing the chunks of pork were slightly smaller. While the sauce was spicy, smoky and complex, it couldn’t permeate the larger hunks of pork and that led to the middle of the pork tasting a bit bland. However, I did thoroughly enjoy the pickled onions that rested atop the pork. They were vinegary and tart and provided a wonderful contrast to the meat. The tomatillo sauce and the smoky black bean sauce were pointless. They lacked any depth and I set them aside.

Dad and I both had rice and beans as a side with our meal and a large bowl of both was brought to the table for us to share. Again, the amount was more than enough for two people. I thought the rice was very good mainly because it had a pleasant kick to it. The beans were also delicious, but were slightly undercooked. Dad agreed that the rice was the better selection.

http://i28.photobucket.com/albums/c208/sethchadwick/mariaicecreamtrio.jpg

Although we were almost bursting at the seams from the meal, we agreed to split the Trio of Ice Cream dessert ($7.00). They were brought rather quickly on an icy, rectangular plate. The flavors were Tequila Raisin, Oaxacan Chocolate, and Mexican Vanilla. Dad and I both agreed that the winner was the Oaxacan Chocolate due to its complexity and dense chocolate flavor. The weakest was, oddly, the Tequila Raisin. While it was good, the tequila taste was so subtle that it was almost absent. The Mexican Vanilla was much better than the Tequila Raisin.

At the end of our meal, I brought to our server’s attention the issue of our entrees being served while we were in the middle of our appetizer. She profusely apologized and stated that the confusion was her fault because she thought the kitchen was more backed up in orders than it actually was. I gave her some points for hearing me out, but I still thought the food runners should have explicit instructions that you don’t serve one course on top of another. Ever. Unless a customer asks for that.

We requested our bill and the total was $55.13 which included tax. Dad and I both thought it was a fair value considering the amount of food that was served. Service was decent and friendly, but we did have to request drink refills two times during our supper. Overall, I thought Maria Maria was okay. There was nothing really that stood out to me except, perhaps, the pickled onions. As we headed back to the car and to East Phoenix, I asked Dad what he thought and he said he liked his meal, but wasn’t sure if he would return. I found the menu interesting enough to return although Maria Maria did not blow me away in its food.

I then asked Dad if he had any objections to me marrying J. “Not at all,” he said. “J. likes Thai food.”

And that is probably the best endorsement my father ever gave.

Maria Maria
2000 East Rio Salado Parkway #K1
Tempe, AZ 85281
Dress: Casual
Hours: Monday through Saturday - 11:30 AM to 1 AM; Sunday - 11:00 AM to 1 AM
Notes: In the Tempe Marketplace. Live music on weekends.
Alcohol: Full bar.
Website: www.mariamariarestaurants.com

Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com

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Maria Maria Restaurant
2000 East Rio Salado Parkway Ste K-1, Tempe, AZ 85281

  1. m
    Maggie Kramer Jul 14, 2008 02:28 AM

    This was my and my GF's take also. Food came out of service. The waitress apologized so no big deal. The food was about a "6". All things, it wasn't a bad meal, but it was far from great. The ambiance was very nice! That and the cocktails were the only things we liked.

    I'd go back but wouldn't drive specifically for this. Only if we were in TMP shopping and wanted a bite and a drink. Not somewhere I'd go on a Friday or Saturday night with so many other great dining options not too far in Phoenix.

    1. johnseberg Jul 12, 2008 10:19 AM

      I returned to Maria, Maria, for lunch yesterday, after reading this review. I hadn't been, since its opening, a few months back.

      My first visit (also lunch) was a success. I loved the chips and salsa, and the short ribs were quite good. This entree would especially appeal to those who like large portions. I took over half of it home. My first impression is that this place will compete with Los Sombreros, less than 5 miles away.

      For yesterday's lunch, I had the Mexican Chopped Salad ($10). You could get chicken or beef added for $2 or $3, respectively. Since the description seemed to feature cotija cheese and avocado, I figured that would be enough. It was not a bad salad, but, not worth the money. Cheese and avocado were present in token amounts.

      But, the big disappointment was the chips and salsa. I think the chips suffered from the monsoon effect. They were a bit stale and leathery. The salsa was not the noticeably fresh stuff I had the last visit.

      I will probably return for the short ribs, some time when I feel like pigging out. But, the next time I crave this food for lunch, I'll remember that I can get something more reasonable at Mucho Gusto. There are a half dozen other places I'd rather go for similar pork dishes.

      I know people have become accustomed to the unlimited chips and salsa policies of some restaurants, but, I find it wasteful, and, in this case, maybe it has lead to the decline in quality. Maybe I got last night's salsa, which wasn't formulated to hold up that long.

      The crowd was surprisingly thin on a Friday, when I've seen Tempe Marketplace to be generally quite busy during other visits.

      1. g
        Genny6603 Jul 11, 2008 11:21 AM

        Hi Seth,
        I've been a lurker and reader of your reviews for some time now. My husband and I tried Maria Maria about a month ago and I have to say that our opinion concures 100% with yours. The space was the most exceptional thing about the restaurant. I expected the food to have bolder flavors and better balance than they actually provided so it was a bit of a disappointment. My husband got the pork carnitas and I got the chicken suizas both on the rec of our server. Meh, they were fine but nothing to go back for.

        Congrats on the engagement!!

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