There is a school of thought in the entrepreneurial self-help literature that says you should start before you're ready. Nobody's perfect, goes the logic, and waiting until all of your ducks are in a row is often just a stalling tactic for those too afraid to get their venture up and running. It's a management tactic that can have varying degrees of return, but one that comes to mind after several visits to Raul's Maya del Sol in North Charleston's Park Circle neighborhood.
After all, why else would you open a restaurant comprised of little more than a take-out window and a dining patio in the middle of October? But Raul Sanchez, owner and executive chef of Maya del Sol, did just that, and he hasn't looked back. He's been buoyed by support from a pre-existing customer base that still mourns the late 2012 closure of Raul's Taqueria and Mexican Grill restaurant on Rivers Avenue.
The patio has been commanding a steady stream of lunch traffic since opening at the end of Montague Avenue. Tacos ($3) arrive on corn tortillas made in-house and with proteins like low-and-slow marinated beef barbacoa or peppery cuts of carne asada. The al pastor torta ($7) comes on a hoagie roll rather than the telera bun billed on the menu, with a charred top belying its time under a sandwich press. A layer of pinto beans are topped with spicy marinated pork, mashed avocado, shredded lettuce, and lime mayo. The torta is very good, spicy but not overpowering, the type of heat that lingers at the back of the throat yet doesn't demand endless glasses of water. It's accompanied by a mild tomatillo salsa but would have been better served by a drizzle of lime juice to brighten the avocado.
At dinner, a rotating menu of specials keeps the evening options fresh for repeat customers. The pork chops ($15) are delightfully moist and surprisingly tender and come drenched in dark red pasilla chile sauce that was more smoke than spice. The sauce that adorns the enchiladas verdes ($14) is a spicy mess of muted chartreuse with roasted tomatillos counterbalancing the heat of the chiles. The ubiquitous Mexican Coke is on the menu, along with the classic version and its affiliated brands of soda, but alcohol is not (it's strictly BYOB at Raul's).
Maya del Sol's brunch picks up where Sanchez's former restaurant left off, with his popular rosemary pancakes ($9) anchoring the favorites section of the menu. The fluffy griddle cakes aren't dominated by their rosemary flavor, but come big and stacked three to a plate. The additional two eggs and bacon will please the cost-conscious diner. Every second Sunday of the month, Maya del Sol offers its tamales breakfast ($8) of three pork tamales topped with eggs. The presentation may be a mild disappointment to tamale fans that like to see remnants of corn husks artfully adorned on the side of their plate. Here, the tamales are naked and hiding under a mess of eggs, the red or green chile sauce of your choosing, and queso fresco. They were super hot and demanded a second and then third glass of water, with a robust pork flavor that keeps you eating. The sweet almond tamales ($2.50) are warm forkfuls of slightly sweet masa that needed no support from the accompanying bourbon cream sauce.
The service is friendly but will need some work to improve as the restaurant moves into its indoor space with a presumably more traditional tableside exchange. Confusion about the point of sale system, incorrect orders, and a lack of child seats were all encountered on various visits, with the universal apology hinging on the unspoken, "We're still getting the hang of this."
The dining space itself is a work in progress as the restaurant moves its primary dining room from the patio to the adjacent indoor space that used to belong to the Park Circle Antiques Mall. At a recent dinner in the new space, the empty walls and sparse furniture gave the room a feeling that was at once awkward and interesting. The interior looked more like a modern art gallery than a restaurant — but that's where the excitement surrounding Maya del Sol lies, with its talented kitchen and wide-open possibility.
Diners seeking authentic, well-executed Mexican cuisine at a comfortable price point should flock to Maya del Sol. Those looking for stylish interiors and flawless service shouldn't avoid it but had better temper their expectations.