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Casa Maya
Restaurants now located in Gillette and High Bridge
615 Meyersville Road
Gillette, Morris County, New Jersey
908) 580-0799

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
September 22, 2003

You turn off Interstate 78 at exit 40, Gillette, take Route 531 North, and follow your nose over the meadow and through the woods. Beautiful downtown Meyersville consists of the Meyersville Inn (which serves up some excellent Cajun/Creole/Italian cuisine, by the way), a Methodist Church, antiques shop, convenience store, veterinary office, and one extremely popular Mexican eatery, Casa Maya. A bit off the beaten track, granted, but surely worth a journey if you enjoy solid south-of-the-border fare.

Just be advised... If you're accustomed to the glitzy plastic ambiance -- and food -- of a Chi-Chi's or ethnic chain chophouses of similar ilk, you may be in for a shock. Casa Maya is a cracker box affair sporting hard, cramped tiled booths, great bunches of peppers and wreaths of garlic hanging from the latticed drop ceiling, and restrooms that are somewhat less than sparkling. The overall feel is that of a tacky fun house in which the lights have suddenly been turned up.

And one additional admonition... Given the copious portions, superior quality of the cuisine, and moderate prices, the constituency is about what you'd expect: women in sweats and form-fitting polyester stretch pants; men in faded jeans and caps advertising their favorite sports team or auto parts emporium; members of the Lexus and BMW set slumming it with the locals -- all clutching their six-packs of Corona, Dos Equis, and assorted domestic brews like security blankets (there is no liquor license). Oh, yes... and screaming, rambunctious progeny of every age and description.

But hey... you didn't come to admire the scenery or gawk at the clientele, you came for the food. And this long-running fiesta serves up some mighty good vittles, indeed. So put away your calorie counter, plan on postponing your next cholesterol test -- this is definitely not diet food -- and dig in.

You begin with a complimentary plate of crisp tortilla chips accompanied by an excellent salsa that is neither too thick nor too watery and possesses just the right amount of zip. But, by all means, have a go at the nachos el ranchero ($6.75), tortilla chips smothered in refried beans and melted cheese and topped with sour cream and an absolutely first-rate guacamole. Incredibly good and most suitable for sharing by two to four. If your appetite is somewhat less Herculean, try the simpler version with melted cheese and a sprinkling of jalapeños ($5.50).

The quesadillas ($6.00), hot flour tortillas filled with melted cheese and choice of chorizo sausage, chicken, or refried beans -- go for the chorizo -- are also quite good, as are the zesty chili con carne ($6.50) and queso flamenco ($6.75) -- melted cheese and sautéed onions and peppers -- both served fondue style.

If all of the above sound like the kiss of death to your delicate peristalsis, you might consider the ranchero salad ($5.50), fresh greens embellished with cubed avocado, sliced egg, tomato, green pepper, onion, and marinated cactus tossed with olive oil and hint of lime. Soups are also a possibility. The gazpacho ($2.75) is a particularly zippy concoction and certainly all that it should be. The black bean soup ($2.75), on the other hand, is the bland leading the bland and could do with infinitely more seasoning.

Among the Mexican specialties, there are several standouts. The tostada ($9.95) -- a crispy flour tortilla shell filled with the diner's choice of chicken, beef, pork, or beans -- is plenteous to a fault and adorned with simpatico compatibles: cheese, lettuce & tomato, sour cream, guacamole, rice & beans. I have sampled the chicken variation on numerous occasions, and it is a consistent winner.

And the very same may be said for the pork burrito ($9.50). The word burrito literally means "little burro" and refers to diminutive snacks that originated in northern Mexico. Once transported across the border, however, these popular Cal-Mex conglomerations grew to gargantuan proportions... and the representative encountered at Casa Maya is no exception. A flour tortilla is overstuffed with succulent strips of pork and then smothered in a mild red or racy mole verde, with all the usual suspects present and accounted for. A monumentally sumptuous feast, and surely not for the faint of appetite.

The mole enchiladas ($12.50) should also not be overlooked. Two corn tortillas are filled with chicken and pork, respectively, and then covered with mole poblano, a Mexican brown sauce made with chili powder, peanuts, cinnamon, chocolate and, depending upon the whim of the kitchen, a diverse variety of other ingredients. And the mole here acquits itself with suitable distinction: It is rich, sensuous, earthy, and crowned with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

But not everything is perfect. There are a couple of glaring glitches that need to be rectified. And the first, for some odd reason, seems to be endemic to south-of-the-border eateries: the pace at which items emerge from the kitchen -- forget mañana, it is nothing short of the speed of light. You are munching away contentedly at your appetizers (about halfway through, to be precise); and then, suddenly, in the midst of a most pleasant conversation with your table companions, up pops your server, entrées at the ready.

Which means, given the humongous size of the platters and the spatial limitations, something -- perhaps several things -- must vacate the premises in order to make room for this inconvenient incursion. Maybe the chips and salsa, or those incredibly delicious nachos, the remainder of the quesadillas, or that invigorating gazpacho. Decisions, decisions... while your server waits impatiently. It is, as they say, a Mexican standoff.

There is no question that restaurants thrive on turnovers, but there also must be taken into account the law of diminishing returns. If patrons feel that an establishment is being a bit too aggressive in getting them fed and out the door, they may decide, regardless of the quality of the food and the reasonable prices, to spend their hard-earned cash in a less frenetic environment. A somewhat less hectic dining pace here would be very much appreciated.

There is one additional matter that needs to be addressed... The kitchen has a particular proclivity to OVER cook certain items. With regard to the chicken strips embellishing the sizzling fajita ($16.95), this is of no great consequence. The swordfish ($19.95), on the other hand, is quite another matter... It is as dry as dust. The only finny creature to grace the menu, and it falls victim to an overzealous hand at the grill. And this a shame, as the piscatorial representative appears to be of excellent quality and the accompanying Mayan sauce (capers, onions, garlic, olives, and lemon) most ingratiating.

Desserts, if you still have room, are worth considering. The flan ($3.00) is quite good, as is the bunuelo ($3.00), a crispy flour tortilla sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and drizzled with maple syrup. But should you be a party of four or more, order up the sopapilla ranchera ($6.25), which possesses all the attributes of the aforementioned bunuelo plus a mountain of ice cream.

One final piece of advice... Casa Maya does not take reservations. And the madding crowd, especially on weekends, has been known to stretch from the neither regions of a rather dingy narrow hallway leading to the restrooms, through the miniscule foyer, and out into the street -- all the while salivating with impunity. Your best defense, therefore, is a good offense: COME EARLY!

Cuisine: Mexican
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Sun, 12:00 noon - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Not accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive/Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Difficult
Web site: http://www.casamayamexican.com

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