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Take a Letter Maria...Maria

Oye Como Vamanos a Maria Maria, musician Carlos Santana's new place in Hazard Center. 8 days in and the joint was jumpin', even those odd early evening sprinkles couldn't put a damper on the business. A reservation would have been handy because at 6 pm everything was full up, even the bar.

There was a small misstep at the beginning as I was seated at a table with a decidedly downward slope. But after that was fixed, everything was actually very good. The drink menu boasts at least 7 or 8 Margaritas made from different tequilas for $7 - 12. There is a selection of tequilas for sipping, and a sangria, but no mezcal. The specialty drinks were all $10 and offered some interesting items, the Paloma (tequila + grapefruit soda (think Wink!)), a Guava sparkler (sparkling wine + guava juice) and the drink I finally chose, the Rosetta. A beautiful dark rose beverage made with tequila, jamacia, cointreau and lime juice...yep, the jamacia margarita. Garnished with a nice lime slice and little vanda orchid. It tasted as good as it looked and mercifully was not overly sweet.

Dining solo didn't give me a chance to try much of the menu, but I did like what I tried. I asked my waiter what was good and he recommended the duck tacos, said they were his favorite thing on the menu. Not being in a ducky mood this evening, I passed but would be willing to try those on a later date as they did sound pretty dam* good.

I settled on the Grilled Skirt Steak with Nopales and a side of corn. The adobo rubbed skirt steak was ordered medium rare and that's the way it came. It really was fork tender and I didn't need the knife to cut it. Plate presentation was quite nice with a pool of a very respectable ranchera sauce covering the bottom and the steak attractively draped over a generous portion of ensalada de nopales, and all of it finished off with some squiggles of crema and cilantro. It was a delicious and satisfying dish with a lot of very traditional flavors.

The nopales salad was a nice mixture of sliced nopales (cactus paddles) and cherry tomatoes tossed up with a red onion vinaigrette. I thought the acidity of the vinaigrette got lost when it comingled with the ranchera sauce. The tart, acidic zing typical in a salad of nopales would have been a nice contrast to the richness of the meat and tomato char of the ranchera sauce.

The menu described the corn side as roasted corn garnished with crema, cotija cheese, lime and cilantro. In other words how corn is normally served in Mexico. What the menu didn't say - by my server did when I asked - is that the corn is still on the cob. It comes beautifully grilled with the husks pulled back adorned with the garnishes. No, it's not the easiest or most graceful thing to eat, but you can cut it off the cob to make eating the corn easier. I didn't, I threw caution to the wind, picked it up and gnawed on the cob in full view of all the other diners. The corn on my ear was very sweet and very tender. Be forewarned, however, that the cob does cool down pretty fast so don't dawdle eating it.

The dessert menu is short and I'm not sure how good it is. I tried the lime pie. Good, not great, underwhelming. Kind of like a grainy key lime pie. Othere desserts were a chocolate mouse, flan and an absolutely lethal Spanish Coffee well laced with mulitple liquors.

Service was good, and it was clear time had been spent in training employees. Management was on the floor talking to diners and actively soliciting feedback. I had a nice chat with one of the managers and learned that they've been busier than they anticipated, are somewhat understaff because of that, and the kitchen has been slammed. I also scored a sample of the blackberry mole sauce from the manager. It comes with the short ribs, which I almost ordered, but they didn't quite seem to be the thing for a warm and humid evening. That blackberry mole sauce was outstanding. Well balanced, nuanced, not too sweet, not too overtly chile-ish, the sauce was everything a good mole should be.

I like the amibance and energy of Maria Maria. The drink, entree and corn were all good enough to make me want to come back and try more of the menu, as did many of the plates I saw passing my table on the way to other diners. It's not quite alta cocina, but it's not the typical taqueria or any of the dumbed down Mexican combo-plate places we have around town. I liked the flavor profiles on the food I ate, I liked the atmospher, I hope they can settle in and provide some smart, sophisticated Mexican cuisine.

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  1. Yay! We tried to go to MM for lunch last Friday but they were still in soft opening phase and told us they wouldn't have lunch hours until this week. The menu really piqued my interest...even Sunday brunch, even though I rarely eat that meal in restaurants. So glad to hear the service was ready for the onslaught and the food didn't disappoint.

    Can't wait to try this place...will definitely make a reso because of your post. Great report DD.

    5 Replies
    1. re: foodiechick

      I'm cautiously optimistic. It reminded me of a bigger, flahier, better organized and run version of the original Chilangos. I had a good meal tonight, but they're a very young restaurant trying to find their groove. I think it is worth tyring, I hope your meal is a nice as the one I had :-)

      I'm not sure where they spent the $3 mil on remodeling (well, yeah, the open kitchen for one) but I do like the interior and courtyard spaces. It's done in a very muted color palate but the art work on the walls by contemporary Mexican artists is fantastic.

      1. re: DiningDiva

        I vote this for best titled thread in a long time.

        RB Greaves with Latin flavor!

        1. re: Fake Name

          Yeah, but now I've got it stuck in my brain and I can't get it out.

          1. re: DiningDiva

            Best line:

            I kept my cool, I ain't no fool.
            Let me tell you what happened then:

            1. re: Fake Name

              Hmmm...I thought it was "let me tell you what I then did" but I could be wrong. Now, I'll never get it out of my head. Aarrggghhhh

    2. Being a drummer, I can't help but be overjoyed with Carlos Santana's recent engagement to Cindy Blackman, who is one of the best damn drummers on the planet!
      Look forward to having drinks and app's at Maria Maria..
      Thanks DD for the report!

      8 Replies
      1. re: Beach Chick

        I had the same reaction when I read that news, BC. She's amazing.

        We're headed to Maria Maria next week for lunch, as too many of us had to work out of L.A. this week. Reading your review, DD, has given me hope that there will be decent Mexican dining in MV after all.

        1. re: phee

          "Reading your review, DD, has given me hope that there will be decent Mexican dining in MV after all."

          If Chowhound had a strike-thru font option, I'd cross out the "Mexican" part phee's statement above. Unless, of course, one likes many varieties of cheesecakes. :)

          1. re: RB Hound

            It actually started off that way, RB Hound, but I guess I was being kind. It is Friday, after all. A Monday post may have not fared so well. ; )

            1. re: phee

              I'm very happy that space is finally being used again. One of my first dates with my wife was at Prago (which was too close to "preggo" for my liking, but what can you do), and even though it was probably long beyond its heyday at that point, we had a good dinner and a good time.

              The downside of this is that we'll probably have a more difficult time parking if we visit the Lakeshore Learning Store too late in the day.

              1. re: RB Hound

                Actaully, parking wasn't too bad. There is no valet parking so all those spaces that used to be empty are now open for restaurant parking. There were several open parking spaces on the side where Starbucks and Barnes & Nobel are located. Holiday and maybe weekend parking will probably be a pain, but regular weekday parking probably won't be too awful.

                1. re: RB Hound

                  That's awesome, because Mr. Geeky and I had a memorable date there. The food was delicious, but this was before smartphones and I couldn't look up what "carpaccio" meant. We were really young, a little embarrassed to ask the server what it was, and the description sounded good, so we ordered it. The description left out the "raw" part... but I loved the beef carpaccio. It's a shame the place closed, but it sounds like this new place might do just fine.

                  Thanks for the report, DD! Looking forward to trying it!

                  1. re: RB Hound

                    Hey now, the old Prego was one of the very first places my wife and I ate when we first moved to San Diego “way” back in 2002. Sat on the patio and it was quite nice we thought.

                    Had been back once in maybe 2005 or 06. Had no idea it closed until DiningDiva mentioned this new place on the upscale Mexican dining thread.

                    Nice report, DD!

              2. re: phee

                The lunch menu was part of the whole menu. While I didn't spend much time looking at it, I did see that it was mostly combo plates and everything appeared to be in the $10-12 range. What I don't know, and didn't ask, is if that's in addition to the regular menu, or just by itself and the regular menu isn't available at lunch. I suspect that the apps, soups and salads are probably all available at lunch.

                They were rather clever in how they arranged the menu. The dishes have been arranged from top to bottom of the menu page in order of spiciness with the mildest dishes at the top and the spiciest at the bottom.

                They do bring chips and 3 salsas to the table while you're waiting. The chips are nothing to write home about. The mildest salsa has nice texture but is fairly unremarkable. The mid-spice salsa is chile de arbol based with nice flavor (kind of a vinegar tany) and nice heat. The hottest salsa is the green one made from chile manzana (aka chile peron) the only chile with black seeds. It is a relative of the habanero and like the habanero has a great floral flavor profile, though not quite as firey. I did not care for this salsa and strongly suspect it was not made correctly. It had virtually not chile flavor (and I like chile peron) and tasted strongly of black pepper, an ingredient not frequently used in Mexican salsas.

            2. DD Thank you for this review! We can't wait to try it.

              1. Dined at Maria Maria last night. Hung jury.

                The Maria Maria margarita was quite tasty, the Paloma was perfection, but we were disappointed in the beer/wine selections. They only carried three Mexican beers: Corona and Pacifico in bottles and Modelo Expecial on tap, no SD craft beer. California wine list with very stingy pours. No Mexican/Valle de Guadalupe wines...silly me, it IS a chain.

                I think this restaurant excels at sauces. The quintessential basket of chips was accompanied by three sauces: fresca, tomatillo-habanero, and chile de arbol. The tomatillo-habanero was light and refreshing with a hot afterglow. The chile de arbol looked dark, dense and menacing and screamed danger, but turned out to be a beautiful warm, smokey puree - excellent. The guacamole tasted fresh and had some sort of chile after-bite, but I found it a bit pedestrian.

                I ordered the street taco sampler which consisted of three kinds of meat: carne asada, adobo grilled chicken and carnitas. They all came on "street" sized corn tortillas that tasted freshly made with chopped cilantro, pickled red onions and dabs of a roasted tomatillo sauce that obviously included some kind of chile (because OUCH did it pack a wallop of heat). The chicken was the best of the three, the carnitas tasted like stew, and the carne asada tasted like...nothing, nada, zip - no flavor. Our server brought (at my request) a small ramekin of the restaurant's chipotle cream sauce (at my request), as well as their roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce. The chipotle cream sauce was smokey but really bland, but the roasted tomato-habanero was outstanding.

                Husband ordered the chipotle shrimp which was stuffed with roasted jalapenos and poblanos and wrapped in bacon, resting on a pool of roasted red bell pepper butter. It came with guajillo rice and refried black beans. He enjoyed the rich entree, but I found the melted, gooey cheese topping distracting and too much overkill for my taste (the black beans were excellent).

                The chicken-mole-tortilla casserole sounded intriguing, as did the grilled salmon with pineapple pico de gallo. One odd dish caught my eye on the menu: chicken fajitas with roasted red onions, poblanos and "applewood smoked bacon". Huh? I am a firm believer that almost everything tastes better with bacon, but in chicken fajitas? Just sounded weird to me. There were three vegetarian entrees: vegetarian enchiladas, mixed wild mushroom fajitas and a vegetarian chile relleno that looked fantastic when delivered to a neighboring diner.

                Our server, Gema (pronounced traditionally with an H sound replacing the silent G) was knowledgeable, helpful, gracious and a little "street". Kind of Michelle Rodriguez meets America Ferrara. Cool.

                We will go back if we are taking in a movie at Hazard Center or hitting the mission valley malls for kids birthday/Xmas shopping, but I wouldn't say it is destination dining.

                2 Replies
                1. re: foodiechick

                  Nice review. Do you remember the prices for the dishes, e.g. your street taco plate ?

                  1. re: honkman

                    The street taco sampler was an appetizer for $9. Entrees ranged from around $11-$16.

                2. This is the first I saw of the thread, great day for a bump since we are going to a movie in Hazard Center tonight and wanted to check out the new restaurant that we knew nothing about. Thanks!

                  1. I have been to Maria Maria twice now, and don't believe I will be back except, perhaps, for drinks and chips. The dishes have been a fail for me.

                    First visit, we ordered caipirinhas, which were good, a little smoother than i am used to actually. Perhaps they are using a higher quality cachaca than in my days in Newark, NJ's Ironbound. But these I enjoyed as well as the chips and salsas covered elsewhere here.

                    The appetizer was the street tacos, which were OK, but no real standout to me. For an entree, I ordered Crab & Shrimp Chile Relleno and the side of roasted corn. The chile relleno was horrible. There was something incredibly "off" about it, with an overwhelming bitter/sour flavor. I could not determine what part of the dish was causing the taste, but it was bad enough that I had to send it back and I have never sent a dish back, ever. I will say, the roasted pepper sauce that it sat on was good.

                    The dish was replaced with Vegetarian Enchiladas that were fine, but I had made the same a week earlier from a Rick Bayless (Tweeted!) recipe, and mine were far better.

                    The roasted corn seemed more steamed than roasted/grilled, but was sweet and fine, and served it's purpose of giving me something to eat while my second entree was prepared. The manager did come over to apologize and told me that they need to rethink the Crab & Shrimp Chile Relleno, as others have sent it back as well. Overall, we did enjoy the atmosphere and the drinks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. (Mr. Divamac had grilled fish tacos, deemed "OK" by him. He's not big on describing food and I did not taste them.)

                    We returned last night for dinner. First, there IS valet parking, and on a Friday evening, parking was a pain. Second, we chose to sit in the bar so we didn't have to wait for a table. There was a guitarist, which was enjoyable, but made it almost impossible to have a conversation, so be warned.

                    We had Maria Maria margaritas to start, which were very good, and very smooth. We skipped appetizers this time and went right to entrees: Steak Diablo for him, Pork “Carnitas” for me (quotes are on the menu). I also ordered a side of Fried Plantains topped with Cotija Cheese & Crema.

                    The "carnitas" arrived in a small cast iron pan, still sizzling, and from the first look I knew something was wrong. They were chunks of pork, coated in a red adobo sauce, not succulent braised, falling apart porky goodness I expected from carnitas. But then again, I did order "carnitas". Topped with red onion and cucumber, they looked attractive, but there was an aroma coming from the dish that was a little off-putting to me. In the end I think it was the smell of the adobo burning on the red-hot cast iron. The dish came with a small side of salsa verde and black beans that were all liquid no beans, all bland. The bottom line on the "carnitas" was that they were little, dry pork shoulder chunks with globs of unrendered fat, and of the 6 chunks, I left 3 on the plate. Mr. Divamac ate one and called them "not carnitas". I also ordered corn tortillas and got half corn/half flour. I hate those little mistakes.

                    The Steak Diablo was a very nice cut of beef. Ordered medium, it was overcooked but still moist. The main problem was that the diablo sauce it came on was overwhelmingly hot -- and I love heat -- but lacked any other flavor. It overwhelmed the flavor of the beef, so Mr. Divamac scraped as much off as he could before wrapping the beef in tortillas and adding some of the house salsa. Not a fail, but not a win.

                    As for the plantains, I was expecting discs of plantain twice-fried, which is the only way I have had them. Instead what came out was a bowl of Bananas Foster with cotija and crema. It tasted very good, but it was a dessert more than a side. I would swear they were bananas and not plantains. Perhaps they added sugar to caramelize them. Either way, it was not what was expected.

                    When the waiter came to collect our dishes, he asked if I wanted a box for my "carnitas". I declined and then confirmed that "carnitas" is in quotes on the menu. He didn't know, but I said I thought it was, and should have known not to expect traditional carnitas. I was not exactly complaining, but he did return with a comped dessert of "their version of churros" which were, fried flour tortillas with cinnamon sugar topped with ice cream (is there a name for this? It's not a menu item). I wonder if this is off-menu to placate the dissatisfied diners they get?

                    The restaurant was crowded inside and out, and the wait for dinner was 30 minutes at 7:30 on a Friday, so I guess this is satisfying the masses. Too bad. Mission Valley could use some quality dining.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: Divamac

                      Yes, those "carnitas" are so NOT carnitas.

                      1. re: Divamac

                        Thanks for the report. He admits many send back the Crab & Shrimp Chile Rellenos? Sounds like they need to do more than "rethink" them and ASAP! Yeah, too bad, I was hoping there's be something good in that area too.

                        Anyone try Tikul in La Jolla yet?

                        1. re: Divamac

                          OMG, what an awful experience. I swear I really did have a good meal, but it's sure looking like mine was the exception, not the norm. Friends of friends ate there last weekend and had an experiece similar to yours. They, too, said they wouldn't go back.

                          Carnitas are essentially pork confit. They don't contain adobo, adobado or "ado" anything else.

                          What a drag, I was so hoping this place would pan out to be good. Not looking like that right now is it.

                          1. re: DiningDiva

                            Gosh, I really don't want to pile on but...... We went last Friday, we never really go down to MV but we had a meeting and to let the traffic die down.... The parking lot was kinda a pain with all of the office workers leaving at that time, and I am glad they had a Valet. They seated at one of the small tables in the dining room and the place was empty. The room was nice but there was this beam of light coming in from the windows over the patio that was glaring me in the face.The server was nice enough but everything on the menu wasd "great" I had the house Marg it was good. Mrs LS had the sparkling sangria and thought it was a bit sweet. We started with the Queso app. perhaps a bit heavy,but the flavor was good. Then we had a house salad and the gzapacho. The house salad was the best dish of the nite. Fresh greens and dressing was good. The gzapacho was a white soup with ground almonds for the thickener. I liked it but my SO thought it was too heavy for a gzapacho. She had the street tacos and it was the same experience as the above posters. We went to the Poway farmers market on Saturday and there was a taco vendor. Mrs. LS said , "Now that is what street tacos should be". I had the Carnitas relleno and the sauce was fine the carnitas was kinda fatty and no crispy bits o' pork like I expected. The relleno itself, was not really well battered and cooked like most rellenos I have ever eaten. Wont race back, and we coulda gone to Bully's east.

                            1. re: littlestevie

                              Shoulda gone to Bully's East. After 40 years in business, they at least get it right most of the time ;-).

                              I guess we'll just have to chalk my fairly positive dining experience up to luck of the draw, or perhaps it should be "beginners luck".

                              Bully's East
                              2401 Camino Del Rio S, San Diego, CA 92108

                          2. re: Divamac

                            fried flour tortillas with cinnamon sugar topped with ice cream (is there a name for this?

                            Often called Buñuelos.

                            1. re: stevuchan

                              That's what I thought, but when I went to the Internets to be sure (and to spell it right - you people intimidate me!) All I saw were the equivalent of zeppole. Thanks!

                          3. Arrgh, this thread. Now I'll have the earworm all day.

                            DD, I'll never forgive you for that title.

                            1. Okay, I am so retracting everything abive that I wrote. I ended up at Maria Maria this afternoon with a group of friends. While it wasn't bad, it also wasn't very good. Carlos should be ashamed of himself.

                              Looks like I was just plain lucky when I wrote the original post last August. 6 months in it's still a nice space, but with very average food, which isn't even decent Americanized Mexican :-(

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: DiningDiva

                                Yeah, I hear you. I've been here once and don't think I'll be back anytime soon. The food was pretty average and expensive. Too bad Mission Valley continues to be a tough place to gete a decent meal.