Considering how much I'd heard about the place, it's somewhat remarkable that I didn't make it to Maïs Arepas until recently. The problem is that I have a few other things going on, what with the baby and the full-time job and the hours I spend in the gym preparing for my upcoming role as Maggie in an “avant-garde” production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The delay is probably also attributable to the fact that I have the attention span of a mayfly for a lot of things, and I forgot the place existed for weeks at a time. I'd remember and think, “I need to check that out,” but then I'd promptly forget again. (For those interested, other things I forget are directions, birthdays other than my own and those of my wife and kids, and the difference between good and evil.)
I wish I'd gone sooner, not least because my best friend recently moved into an office near the place, and we haven't had lunch in too long due to our respective workloads. Knowing there was someplace convenient to both of us (it takes me longer to get out of my parking garage than to get to Maïs) that also has excellent food would have been nice.
From time to time I point out that I typically write about restaurants here shortly after they've opened, and on scant experience. Maïs has been open for more than six months, but per the usual I've eaten there just the once. I'll be back, and I don't expect the next meals I have to be markedly different, but you should bear all of this in mind when deciding whether to try the place out yourself.
The restaurant is located in one of those neighborhoods that are described as “up and coming,” or “on the path to gentrification.” There's what looks to be a high-end salon adjacent to Maïs, and a few of the properties in the immediate vicinity have clearly been recently renovated at some expense. But then a few of the restaurant's neighbors look as though they are inhabited but shouldn't be. There are some advantages – there's ample parking in a lot at corner of Clio and Carondelet streets opposite from Maïs that formerly belonged to the Fleet Tire service center.
The restaurant itself, which was formerly Surrey's La Playa, has been beautifully renovated. There's a single dining room with windows letting light in on two sides and a long bar lining a third. It's not a white-tablecloth place, but then this isn't white-tablecloth food. It's Colombian food, mostly of the homey variety, but executed with real talent.
Outside of Barú, we don't have much in the way of Colombian food in New Orleans. It's a shame, because it's a rich and diverse cuisine with similarities to our own Creole cooking. The restaurant's name tells you its specialty – the thick cornmeal cakes called arepas that are sometimes used like cornbread, but can also be split and stuffed like pita.
They show up in both forms at Maïs; miniature cakes of white cornmeal accompany the chuzos – grilled skewers of beef, chicken, onion and peppers served with a slightly tart garlic, chile and herb sauce. The beef was particularly good; the menu calls it skirt, and it certainly had the deep flavor of that cut, but it was thick enough that I wasn't sure. I gave it all of about two seconds of thought before deciding that it doesn't matter. It's real good. Colombian empanadas are made with a cornmeal dough that turns out crispy rather than the flaky variety with which I'm more familiar. I'd always preferred the Cuban/Mexican style, but the empanadas at Maïs made me question that preference. They're stuffed with beef and potatoes, and come with more of that green “Aji Valluno” sauce.
We passed on the other appetizers, though I'd like to give the shrimp ceviche a shot. We also didn't really consider the house salad, which looked notable only for the pickled onions and grilled corn mixed in with local greens, cherry tomatoes and avocado. We also didn't have room for the sole soup that's on the regular menu: ajiaco. It's one of the few Colombian recipes I'd read more than once; an Andean soup with potatoes, chicken, corn, capers, an herb called guascas, avocado, rice and cream. It's a meal to itself, and with a bunch of stuffed arepas to choose from on my first visit, it wasn't an option.
The heart of the menu is, as suggested, arepas stuffed with a variety of fillings. The Cerda comes with pulled pork, ripe plantains, pickled onions and cotija cheese. Mechada combines skirt steak cooked slowly, like ropa vieja, with plantains and mozzarella cheese, and the Reina is shredded chicken, avocado, lime and green peppers. There's a vegetarian option (the Fanny) that's just plantains, avocado and mozzarella, but I'm not sure I'll make it that far down the menu any time soon. We picked the Mechada and the Carnicera (grilled skirt steak red beans, plantains and avocado) and I'd be hard-pressed not to order either one again. The meat in the Mechada was something like that of a tender, sloppy roast beef poor boy. The plantains that showed up in both arepas were slightly sweet, which is how I like them, but made me glad for the hogao valluno (a tomato and red pepper salsa) and, for an extra .50, more of the aji valluno.
Prices are a bit steep, with three empanadas and two skewers (one beef and one chicken) costing $9 each; the arepas start at $10 for the Fanny and average around $12. But there's nothing on the menu over $15 (the Ajiaco) and this is food of a quality that, to my mind, makes it well worth the cost. Service was excellent when I dined, though there were only four other people in the place at the time. There's a full bar, and a short selection of beers and wines by the glass.
Maïs Arepas is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 for lunch and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner; on Sunday they're dinner-only. The address is 1200 Carondelet St., and you can call them at (504) 523-6247.