Every year I travel for a design conference that pops up in various places in the world. It could be Buenos Aires, it could be Cleveland. This year, it landed in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was floored to find The Mayan Café just 14 blocks from my hotel. Not since I met a fellow blogger under the arch in St. Louis have I allowed my Yucatecan imaginings disrupt my yearly conference, I had to set some time aside to explore.
The café’s website strongly advised reservations, and since I didn’t have any, I knew I’d have to arrive early. And since there was a fundraiser later that evening to attend, I got in at 5:15 p.m. on Friday for an early supper. There was only one other couple, and when they seated me by the kitchen door, I knew they were gearing up for a full house. In about a half an hour, that deduction proved correct. The dining room was filled. Starting as a food cart in the mid-1990s, the restaurant
has proved its staying power. Before the crowd arrived, I was able to take in the impressive, large-scale color photos taken in Kantunil, the Chef Bruce Ucán’s hometown almost dead center in Yucatán state. The images take this Kentucky restaurant out of hipster NuLu and into its rightful context.
For my appetizer, I chose the salbutes, or the kitchen’s interpretation of them. Favoring in-season, locally sourced ingredients, the kitchen topped them with fried green tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and baby greens. Does that seem far afield from what you’ve had at Cafe Impala? Maybe, but the flavors worked for me, and did indeed somehow connect to Yucatán. It was delicious on its own merits, in any case.
Then came the main course. This time, they added a Mayan twist to a local favorite: the Hot Brown. You can almost see how an open-faced turkey sandwich would relate to Yucatan’s turkey-centered dishes, and they run with it. Topping the cake flour hearty brown bread, the traditional cheese sauce is replaced with white mole, which the chef shows you how to make here. It’s wonderfully savory and complex. The menu list the local purveyors who supplied the bacon, turkey, cheeses and other ingredients.
I was happy to see a Manhattan cocktail on the menu. It had Eagle Rare bourbon, Art in the Age “Root” liquor, sweet vermouth, and bitters. If Chef Ucán is reading this, I will tell you sir that you must open an outpost in Mérida and conquer the bitters shortage! The Mayan Cafe would fit in with Mérida’s quickly evolving restaurant scene. I didn’t get to meet the chef, but if I did, I’d not only urge him to branch out in Mérida, but along the entire Eastern Seaboard.
While Los Angeles and San Francisco might easily find Yucatecan food, or its influences, we closer to the Atlantic find ourselves deprived. Menu items might promise “Yucatecan” this or that with little or no reference to ingredients or techniques you would expect.
But here I am in Louisville, Kentucky, where my friends in Connecticut might assume I’m slogging through a cultural backwater. This couldn’t be more from the truth. It’s one of the coolest, most enjoyable destinations I’ve encountered since traveling for SND workshops. That they not only have, but have continually embraced, the Mayan Café, tells you something about the sophistication of the Louisville populace. And coming from an area that claims to love “ethnic” food, I can say we have a way to go.