Maizal in Rosebank offers Mexican fare that, to purists like us, is at last “the real thing”

by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos By Amessé Photography

To the Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations that existed almost 2,000 years ago, corn served as more than just the main form of sustenance—the precious golden crop was often used as currency, and in some circles even worshipped as a god. So when Leo Zelaya opened his Rosebank-based boutique restaurant in 2010, he was spiritually inspired by that staple of Mexican culture and cuisine.

“In Spanish, Maizal means ‘cornfield,’ and since corn was so valuable to the Mexican people, I thought it would be an appropriate name,” noted Zelaya, whose family hails from Honduras, not far from the Mesoamerican regions where these ancient people thrived.

“Corn was a provider, a means of survival, as important as the sun, or the air they breathed,” Zelaya continued. “At Maizal, it is a huge part of our menu, and the main ingredient in many of our dishes.”

Launched five years ago after Zelaya left a 15-year corporate career, Maizal, which features an extensive menu of traditional Mexican fare and an offbeat Sunday brunch, was built around the bones of a smallish diner which had occupied the quiet space for years.

“We worked with what we had, using some of the existing structure and restaurant setup to our benefit,” Zelaya said. “But when we were peeling away the layers, the first thing we noticed was this beautiful braid of wood in the ceiling, so we decided to expose and whitewash all of it. As we moved along, we did not like the lighting system, so came up with our own idea and found these original 1800s wagon wheels, which we wired and strung with lights and used as our main fixtures.”

They built large, family-style tables and a bar from reclaimed wood taken from old buildings in New York City, then hung two 12-foot mirrors at an incline to create an intimate lighting effect.

Avora Spread

“We worked hard for months to give this place character and make it feel like home,” Zelaya said.

The owner, in addition to his time with a tech company, worked in several capacities in the restaurant business over the past 25 years. “I know what it is to wash dishes, deliver food, and flip burgers,” he said, adding that he’s joined in the business by his brother, executive chef Wilmer Santos, as well as Maizal’s floor manager, Alejandra Morales.

“Wilmer is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and brings beautiful Mayan recipes to our menu, and Alejandra is the spirit and charm of both of our restaurants,” Zelaya said, speaking of the Astoria, Queens location of Maizal which launched last year.

Here in Staten Island, the restaurant is thriving. Featuring a menu full of enchiladas, fajitas, tacos, and quesadillas.

“Our Enchiladas de Mole Poblano is one of our most popular items,” Zelaya said. “It’s Mexico’s iconic dish, featuring two soft corn tortillas filled with a choice of chicken, beef, spicy pork, veggies, or shrimp, then topped with Maizal’s popular Mole Poblano.”

There’s fish tacos, too (stuffed with eight ounces of fresh grouper, lightly powdered with spiced flour and lime jalapeño mayo), and Tequila and Lime Fried Shrimp, sautéed with tequila, white wine, and butter and served with chunks of tomatillo, tomato, garlic, and fresh cilantro. Crab Cake appetizers and Chorizo and Potato Empanadas are a few other dependable crowd pleasers.

“Our Mixiote—a combination of dry peppers and spices mixed with olives, capers, avocado leaves, and white wine served with chicken on the bone or shrimp…that’s also very unique,” Zelaya said.

The restaurant’s guacamole has also acquired a mystique.

“It’s freshly made and served on a volcanic rock,” the owner explained. “There’s pretty much not a table in here that doesn’t order it.”

Specials change every Friday, and the restaurant’s brunch—which features offbeat favorites like poached eggs served over corn tostadas, crepes with chorizo, scrambled eggs, and avocado, and Brioche French Toast served with Chantilly Cream and passion fruit syrup—has its own loyal following. Cocktails crafted from fresh tropical fruits (think mangoes, berries, oranges, and coconuts) are also a large part of the Maizal experience.

“When we first opened, many people questioned the location, because we’re on this quiet strip of Bay Street with absolutely no foot traffic, but I knew that if the food was good and the atmosphere was right, they would come. You don’t need a prime location if you provide a wonderful product,” Zelaya said. “And since the beginning our customers and neighbors have been welcoming and wonderful. We have so many supporters from just about any and all ethnic groups, who’ve told us as soon as we opened our doors that this type of restaurant was needed in the borough.”

990 Bay Street / 347.825.3776 / maizalrestaurant.com