When I had the great fortune of winning two British Airways Club Class tickets to anywhere in the world 18 years ago, without a second thought I took my then boyfriend to Mexico. Then, Athens didn’t have any Mexican restaurants worth visiting, and we were impassioned not only by the country’s fascinating ancient culture and decorative arts but also by its tantalising flavours. We’d been cooking Mexican food at home and drinking tequila and margaritas on our party nights, dreaming of being in the land of the Mayans and Aztecs. In those three weeks around Mexico, we discovered so much more in every sense but also in the way of cuisine – the authentic flavours that our tastebuds had never partied to before. Warned about Montezuma’s Revenge, aka the tragedy faced by your Western intestines if you dare eat the street food, we missed out on a lot of delights, but nonetheless tried a rainbow of dishes and even stayed in a hotel that had a chocolate factory in its entrance, which meant all the rooms were infused with its divine aromas.
When in 2013 I first ate at the newly opened Taqueria Maya on Petraki Street near Syntagma Square I was more than excited to find the closest I’d ever come to the real Mexican experience in my own city. A self-service, “fast-casual”, street-food-style place with a warm and homey vibe, it soon became one of my regular hangouts. Its fresh, homemade dishes, all made using authentic ingredients like blue corn, avocados sourced from its own farm in Crete, yukka leaves and chillies, creamy black beans and fresh queso, as well as its easy location (just five minutes walk from the metro) were not the only appeal – the customer-centric and professional service, managed by owner Haris, always make me and my friends feel right at home.
Once a stockbroker, Haris left the world of finance and moved into the food business first in the baking sector, making and selling bagels to stores, and then working at Nobu restaurants where he discovered the ins and outs of Japanese fusion. “Working in the kitchens I realised how many influences there are in Japanese fusion from Latin American cuisine, and I was intrigued by the latter more and more.” He and his wife opened Taqueria Maya on a pretty little street that was then elusive and completely quiet (today there are several popular places there such as Tazza All Day Cafe and Poke Hawaiian Sushi) and at a time when he saw there was a margin in Athens for ethnic food. The place has been a success almost from day one, and Haris’ dream to make it lovable to both a foreign and Greek, regular as well as tourist clientele has also been realised. One of my favourite aspects was that unlike a lot of ethnic food places in Athens, Haris didn’t feel he had to alter classic flavours to suit the Greek palate – you can go as hot and pungent as you like here – at least the option is there.
Since it opened five years ago, the ethnic food scene, especially in street-food style has boomed in central Athens. There are Brazilian, Thai, French, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Cuban and Mexican places around every corner in the Syntagma – Monastiraki area. “So we had to up our game,” Haris smiles in his characteristically serene way, “and are now renewing our menu – which will be served in its new rendition as of November – quite dramatically. Also, as we have so many regulars, we wanted to offer them something different and refreshing.”
From the one cocktail (the above-mentioned moreish Margaritas) they will now be serving seven more cocktails, including a classic Pina Colada served in a raw coconut that can be eaten along with the drink. Appetisers will include empanadas, tostadas, blue corn chips and Yukka fritters. Mains, currently made up of tacos (pulled pork, chicken, fish), burritos, a luscious taco salad and other classics you can also make up yourself, will include Macha Manteles – braised pork with chorizo and a sauce of pineapple, banana and spices, authentic mole with cacao, ceviche of shrimps and a new taco topping of agua chile with shrimps, beer-battered fish and blue corn chips. The restaurant prepares all its meats using the French sous vide technique rather than sautéed or baked, which means that it’s vacuumed and slow-cooked, making the end result lighter and more deeply flavoured. And then there will be desserts such as churros with cinnamon sugar and chocolate ganache for dipping, adobo mousse, a vegan coconut flan, and Key lime pie. All I can say is, I can’t wait until November!