Word on the street is: Maïs is the sh*t. Fueled by my body’s unfulfilled desire for legit tacos, I dropped by the new Mile End taqueria for lunch to get in on the action. I wasn’t surprised to see it poppin’ with people scoffing down soft-shell tacos like it’s been a success for ages – not only has Maïs been the subject of good press, it’s also run by a group of guys who know a thing or two about the restaurant business. With Dave Schmidt and Peter Popovic (co-owner of Magpie and The Sparrow) taking care of the business angle while juggling Café Sardine (their first venture together) at the same time, chefs William Cody and Gilbert Macnutt are busy in the kitchen making tacos people can’t seem to get enough of.
Image courtesy of La Bouche Pleine
The room isn’t large, and it’s longer than it is wide. It’s super casual and reminiscent of a sea shack – minus the beach, straw and tiki torches. They do their best to maximize seating, and if you’re claustrophobic, take your meds. There’s a counter near the kitchen, barely any tables for two, and a picnic bench by the window if you can’t find a spot between strangers at the lengthy communal table – or as I like to call it, the sexy situation under a string of colorful lights, overcast by dimness (even in broad daylight). Beautiful people, prepare to be gawked at or hit on if alcohol is involved.
I don’t have a clue about evenings, but this is how it goes down for lunch: order from the chalkboard menu hanging above the cash, pay, find a seat, listen for your number to be called, and pick up your meal that comes in a to-go box. Note: the lunch menu features half the amount of tacos offered at dinner – so, three. Each one will set you back $3.50 to $4.50. Not a terrible price considering most of the ingredients are sourced from local farmers.
I went with the lunch special: all three tacos of the day and a bite-sized dessert for $10.45. Speaking of sweets, Julio & Kate’s LA CaTRINA paletas – all-natural ice pops that come in the most intriguing flavors, like Roasted Smoked Plaintain and Coconut Lemongrass – are sold on site. Inquire if interested.
To sip, I picked up a refreshing, non-alcoholic, carbonated and sugarless Hibiscus drink ($2.60) – which I enjoyed in between bites, even if the floral notes of hibiscus were vanquished by lime.
I started with the Beef Pasilla Taco garnished with spring onions and coriander. Beef with some beans was the main event – shredded, way too flat in flavor, and fizzled in heat. In addition, there wasn’t enough salt, moisture or sauce to tie everything together.
It didn’t get any better with the Winter Vegetable Barbacoa Taco. I think it included roasted parsnips and carrots, pumpkin seeds, fried shavings of butternut squash, and a final touch of watercress. Good ingredients. Well prepared. But when stuffed in a soft, corn tortilla with nothing else, the result was much too dry. It’s better off as a side dish or a companion for meat – not taco filling.
Pressure was on for the Chorizo Con Papas Taco with red onions, coriander and not enough chicharrón (fried pork rinds). First thought: finally, some salt. But there was too much of it in the saucy blend of chorizo and potatoes. Better than the previous two, yet still nothing special.
The tacos came with a choice of salsa roja or verde. I hate that they held back on portions. I had about one tablespoon of mildly spiced red salsa to split between three tacos. Did it better any of them? Not really.
Where was the sour cream?
Why no cheese?
When I put things in my mouth, I want fireworks. And at Maïs, where Mexican is the primary culinary influence, I expected fireworks. My taco recap: one was bland, another too dry, and the last one over-salted. That’s zero for three. If that’s as good as it gets, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. My food wasn’t great. It wasn’t terrible. It simply provoked a series of shoulder shrugs.
I wouldn’t mind going back to taste other things because the menu does vary from lunch to dinner, and week to week. I read about a pork belly taco, a squid taco and one with scallop ceviche – nice. But based on the standards set at my first visit, I’m not excited about the prospect of returning. I didn’t connect with the food, no matter how fresh it was. It didn’t take me to my happy place, no matter how much I wanted it to. It just didn’t deliver on the explosion of flavors I’d hoped it would.
There’s nothing worse than the feeling brewing in my gut when an acclaimed restaurant falls short of expectations. It’s not just about being disappointed in the food; in many cases, it’s also not being able to endorse a team of passionate, gracious and hard-working people.
That feeling f*cking sucks.
N.B. Cash only | Closed Sunday and Monday
5439 blvd St-Laurent | map