What first catches your eye when you walk into Northeast Minneapolis’ Maya Cuisine, a modest storefront right off the bustling Central Avenue, is the vibrant yellow and electric lime walls, and clay tiled awning above the kitchen window. You feel transported to an entirely different place, a small village tucked amongst the warehouses and railroads of industrial Northeast.
That’s the work of Maya’s co-owner, Isela Perez. According to Edme Sanchez, a General Manger here who’s worked at Maya since April 2014, Isela always had designs of creating a place much more than a restaurant. “It’s the environment, the company, the feeling of being welcome and actually being welcomed,” she said. “The point of food is to bring people together.”
In the relatively new expanded space—Maya used to only offer counter-service—Isela has transformed what might otherwise be dreary office space into a festive Mexican courtyard-qua-dining room and bar. On the wall above our table, she created several faux-apartment facades looking over the dining room, replete with shudders, balconies, and lamps. A fountain gurgled in the center. Isela wants this to be a space for people to congregate, hang out, even work—not just eat. She brought many of the decorations from Mexico.
That sort of authenticity defines this place, from the staff to the food. “I can tell right away if something’s fresh or not. It’s a major component of Mexican food.” So they make nearly everything—from the corn tortillas to the pico de gallo—from scratch, every day,” Edme remarked.
Meanwhile, at the bar in the back of the restaurant, their bartender, Roberto, knows how to strike up a conversation. Some customers wind up spending their whole evening talking with Roberto. He also knows how to make an excellent margarita.
When Edme joined the team at Maya Cuisine, she could’ve hardly known what she would be in for. It was weeks before a City Pages article proclaimed Maya Cuisine offered the best Mexican food in Minneapolis. The line was immediately out the door, and it became a moment of reckoning. Before, Maya had been a more haphazard, all-hands-on-deck operation. They had a much smaller menu, often would run out of food, and each staff member would do a little of everything.
In the wake of the City Pages article, they tightened up the ship and organized a more regimented system. They expanded their space to include the dining room and bar. Isela, tired of having to refill customers’ salsa dishes, installed a permanent buffet-style salsa bar that patrons can constantly revisit.
Since Edme came on board, she’s grown more and more comfortable here. Her role has evolved into developing a social media strategy, and taking luxurious photos of the food that look as good as the food tastes. She’s not from the area, but has grown attached to Northeast and places like Diamonds Coffee, Betty Danger’s, and the Eastside Food Co-Op. “Northeast is my special place,” she said proudly.
The restaurant has become more integrated with the surrounding community, too. When possible, they buy from the local grocers on Central Avenue. They donate churros and flautas to local high schools, and send letters to Edison High School recruiting students for their first jobs. Edme remembered how hard getting that first job was, because you don’t have a developed work ethic. She said Maya has not only dramatically informed her own—she’s now a General Manager—but also helped her grow as a person.
This year, Edme participated in her first Art-A-Whirl. Working on the menus inspired her to get more involved in photography, and she shoots portraits, special events, and, of course, menus. Once, she got advice from a local artist on how to save money on framing, and she’s connected with many other artists who dine at Maya. The guys at the nearby woodshop helped her make handmade frames for her, and they gave her other tips on framing.
Being here has been invaluable for her artistic aspirations. Edme returned often to the refrain, “it’s more than just a restaurant,” and it was clear she meant it both for the patrons and personally. The conversations with all the artists, and the support from Isela, have pushed her out of her comfort zone. She displayed her work at Maya during Art-A-Whirl in 2017, and continues to sell photos at the front of the restaurant. “If you give someone the space, that’s when people can be themselves at their most authentic.”