First Bite: Taqueria Los Mayas

Taqueria Los Mayas may be the best thing to happen to Cheektowaga since the Galleria Mall Opened.

There. I said it.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the opening of this place since I saw the sign. Buffalo’s recent proliferation of cantina style taco shops has created so much excitement and anxiety in me, I feel like I’m going on a blind date every time I try a new spot.

I parked at the front of the building, which had me backing out into Genesee Street when I left. I assume there’s more parking somewhere on premises – probably in the back. The interior was decorated in the common theme, and I immediately noticed two things.

1. They actually opened with a Beer/Wine liquor license. A feat unheard of for many small restaurants in Buffalo.

2. Their salsa bar was the stuff that dreams are made of. More to come on that.

It is setup as seat yourself, so I grabbed a chair in the corner where I could watch the activity. Not bad for 12:30 PM on a Monday. I was happy to see traditional Mexican beers on tap, but as it was a weekday lunch, I opted for a Pineapple Jarritos. They have all flavors in stock as well as Mexican Coke. Service is sit down, which is a nice change from some of the other places that have opened recently with only counter service, and they seemed well staffed for day one. Chips and salsa were brought to the table in standard fashion.

Taco Menu

The menu looked legit. A solid mix of classic Taqueria style tacos with some appealing variations, like the breakfast taco, and Chorizo and Tripe. I ordered both of those, as well as Carnitas and Al Pastor, and got up to peruse the salsa bar.

I think a salsa bar can make or break a taco joint. It is a micro-reflection of how the kitchen runs. Does it look fresh? Is it clean and well stocked? It had the standard accouterments of onion, cilantro, and radish and I was happy to see both red and green tomatillo salsa made the cut. Along with pico de gallo and variations of hot, medium, mild tomato based salsas, they also offered an oil bases sauce that looked hot enough to strip paint off the table. I can confirm it is that hot. The owner’s brother in law makes it.

The food came, and I was so very pleased. It looked so very homemade and fresh cooked. The tacos all come traditionally “naked” – in most cases with just the protein on the tortilla, and you then dress it as you’d like from the salsa bar. The tortillas are all made in house. Corn is standard for all tacos, though they do have flour for burritos, and on request. The tortillas are thick enough to not have to double up, but not so thick that they’re unyielding.

Carnitas and Al Pastor.

My first two tacos were Carnitas and Al Pastor. Two very different traditional pork preparations that both have strong roots in Mexican Family cuisine. The Carnitas was flavorful throughout and tender as it should be, and I appreciated the bits of crispy fat and skin that shows it was not just the stewed pork that so many places cop out with, but actually rendered out properly in its own fat.

The Al Pastor is my benchmark. Like Grandma’s sauce on Sunday – there is no set recipe for Al Pastor and it is often steeped in region and tradition. Traditional Al pastor is cooked similar to shawarma on a rotating skewer called a Trompo. However, it may surprise you to hear how pleased I was that the chef does NOT use one for his Al Pastor. Why? Because the Trompo only works when you’re pushing very high volumes of meat. For the Trompo to cook properly, it needs to be loaded with meat. It spins and cooks over time, and as orders come in, the meat is shaved off into hot tortillas, and served. There is a timing pattern required here. When the volume is not there to turn the meat over, the meat gets tough, dries out, and overcooks Likewise, if the orders are not there to support a full Trompo, it is not the proper means of conveyance to cook the Al Pastor, and is thus just a gimmick.  I’ve eaten Al Pastor from Tijuana to Ensenada and if they weren’t jamming like this… It wasn’t worth it. I appreciate the chef’s recognition of this, as they still put out a great end result.

I also tried two different Chorizo tacos. One was a mix of Chorizo and tripe. Traditional proteins unique to American Diners like Tripe and Lengua (tongue) tend to get an afterthought treatment, or are sometimes put on a menu out of obligation. The tripe was treated very tender, and I was pleased at how its texture balanced off the strong and spicy chorizo. And although I was full, I also ordered a Chorizo and egg taco, which came with a sunny side up egg. I think the combo of that spicy sausage mixed with a runny yolk is one of my favorite things to eat.

After my meal, I had the opportunity to speak with Jorge, the chef/owner. He has cooked in Buffalo for several years, working at various establishments in Western NY. While he has cooked within the confines of “Buffalo Style Mexican” restaurants, for lack of a better term, this menu is the making of his family, and has roots in more traditional and less Americanized fare. They wanted to start with a simple Taqueria approach, and many standard tacos are represented, but the inside of the menu also has a variety of dishes that the family collaborated on to bring their cuisine to us. As we talked, I was offered a sample of the Pozole soup, and was once again pleased with the balance of flavors and hominy. Not bad for a rainy day. There is a lot of familial pride showing through the dishes, and I can’t wait to explore the menu further.

This is a much longer post than I would normally write about a restaurant opening. I am just so very happy that it feels and tastes so authentic, and it is so close to my home and work.  I love Mexican food, and I love the whole experience of a Taqueria. I am excited for Buffalo that we went from decades of Mighty Taco and Taco Bell to suddenly being in the midst of ten different shops that have decent Carne Asada. I love the fierceness that Buffalonians are defending their beloved favorite taco shop.

I’ve had a post brewing about the Buffalo Taco scene for about two years now. I keep rewriting it in my head. But in that time I’ve realized – it’s not just one post or one article. It’s a whole new cuisine and journey that west coaster’s and southerners take for granted – that we finally get to enjoy as well. I was excited when we got Vietnamese food. I was ecstatic when Thai showed up. But this? Real Mexican food? I’ve seen joints like Lone Star up their game just so they can keep throwing shade. I’ve snuck into a taco place where the owner hates me, just so that I can try the pork belly. I’ve ardently defended thick tortillas, gotten amazing masa from the Lloyd boys, and almost come to blows over people asking for cheese, beans, and rice on their tacos.

I hope these folks all get to know each other, and meet for a cerveza now and then. I hope the collaborate on the food and do what they can to continue to build this scene. Because Mexico is our neighbor, and their food is so much better than Canada. And I really hope someone puts machaca on their menu soon.

In the meantime – stop in at this new shop on Genesee and Union Road, right off the 33.

Taqueria Los Mayas
3525 Genesee Street
Cheektowaga, NY