Chef Edgar Irias and Trinity Cazzola are from out of town?way out of town. Cazzola, an Iraq vet, hails from the frozen precipice of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, while Irias came to Louisiana from his considerably balmier hometown, the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Together, these unlikely partners have created Maya's, an Epcot-tour of a Latin American fusion restaurant whose wide menu spans from traditional Honduran fare such as pork tamales, to heaping plates of Spanish paella. "We get some critics," explains Cazzola, "who see our menu as being too expansive, but we try to keep it fresh. We introduce specials each weekend, and people enjoy that. It's like they venture to Maya's to see what they can find."
As the bustle on Magazine Street has exploded in recent years, Irias says that Maya's expansiveness has been an asset in a city where authentic Latin American restaurants are few and far between. "So many Latin Americans from Mexico came here [after Katrina] and many of them are opening restaurants," he says, "but they are opening Mexican restaurants and aiming for that specific market. We are trying to do something different and aim for people who have never tried our food, people who want to experience something unique." Among their many plans for the future, the duo has singled out one new attraction that they know they absolutely must have in a city known for its live music?a Spanish guitar player.
What brought you here, to New Orleans?
Edgar: For me, school. I stayed because there were no Latin American restaurants doing what we're doing, getting that nuevo latino into the city. Our food is something really new, but with a Latin flavor in everything, and I think that's why we've been successful.
Trinity: The reason I relocated from Michigan to New Orleans was for opportunity and to help rebuild. I hadn't been in the industry before?I only can relate to my military operations, especially in Iraq, where we were self-sufficient logistically. I sort of used that in my plan with Maya's, what with the logistics of ordering and taking inventory.
Were there any really tough adjustments?
E: Culturally, yes. I come from a small town and I've lived in a metropolitan area, but New Orleans is very unique, especially this area, the Lower Garden District, which to me has a European feeling&151;like a village within a city. So there was an adjustment that I had to make culturally, and we had our challenges with the licensing process and permits...
Was it tricky to work around the city's regulations?
T: Yes, but it depends on what you're doing. We wanted to have a bar in the restaurant, obviously, and there are some limitations that come with that, especially where we're located. I feel like nobody can open a new restaurant with alcohol.
E: Yeah, because many people try, I guess, but they don't give more licenses for alcohol. If you wanna just sell food, that's fine, but if you want something with alcohol you won't be able to do that, so they're making it difficult. If you wanna build in your restuarant, because we are in the process of building, and we're moving into another process of asking if we can do this, we want to expand the kitchen but we are waiting for them to say yes or no. It's so crazy though because we want to actually make it better and give better service to the customers, but they don't even think about that. They don't see it.
T: Their concern is maybe just the building and the structure, you know, maintaining its integrity.
E: Sometimes that's right, I think, sometimes it's good, but sometimes they just go too far. When you can't even add another room to your building...
It's sort of staggering that a city so reliant on the food and beverage industry would be so heavily regulated...
T: You can see that with other things, too. Music, that's another subject. Edgar and I have been working on obtaining a license to have acoustic, non-amplified music once or twice a week and we're in an area that prohibits live music.
E: Right now there's no Latin American place that can offer a place for our regular clientele to go and dance and listen to music and have fun without being around people with a lot of alcohol in them. We want to have something like that, but right now we can't.
T: You can have an event once a month. You can pay to have one event a month... It's not going to deter Maya's, but we wanted to enhance the experience, we want to continue, we'll get it.
E: We're still working.
T: Because in Latin culture, music is important, it's part of the livelihood of the culture.
What sort of cultural experience are you trying to offer patrons when they come in here?
E: The population [in the Lower Garden District] is growing. The city's growing?we are not like before Katrina. So many Latin Americans from Mexico came here and many of them are opening restaurants, but they are opening Mexican restaurants and aiming to capture that specific market. We are trying to do something different and aim for people who have never tried our food, people who want to experience something else, something different. We want all the flavors so we include food from the Carribbe, South America, Central America and Spain, and we put a little bit of Asian and Middle East in between so people have a more comprehensive understanding of Latin culture. If you went to Argentina, for example, where the influences from the Middle East are so big, you'd have a lot of food from the MIddle East, and if you went to Brazil, you'd have a lot of food from Portugal, so we try to incorporate all of that. Other places focus on one thing, and that's what they do. I don't want to do that. We're trying to do a little bit of everything so you can experience all the flavors. Every time you come here you can have something different, and that is our aim all the time, every weekend we do something different and make it better, so people will come in and say, "I've never tried this--I want to try this." It works for us.
Do a lot of your patrons come from the area or are you drawing from all over the city?
E: We serve locals, mainly, people close by. We don't really have a lot of tourists. That is one unique thing about Maya's.
T: We've become a little bit of a destination for people in the area.
E: I think they [locals] prefer it to be like that. They like that Maya's is for them.
How do people find out about you guys?
T: One of the techniques we used when we first opened?because it took probably a little over five months to get half the restaurant filled?was to try to contribute to some nonprofit causes that we believe in. Aside from that, word of mouth is probably the most powerful marketing tool.
E: Mainly that. It's word of mouth. Most of our customers, somebody told them about Maya's and they had to come in, and now we have our locals all the time here, two and three times a week, so we are happy with that and we're trying to do the best that we can. Sometimes the faster you're growing, the faster the problems grow too. We have to streamline, and our demand is growing, so we have to be growing with it. Right now, we are in the process of rebuilding and doing all the stuff to make sure the people have a good experiences, that they want to come here, that they still want to come to Maya's, so that is what our goal is still.
T: We're buildling for them.
E: Yes, and our food, same thing. Somebody asked me, "What's the philosophy of your restaurant?" and I think the food is the most important thing. You go to a place to eat, so if I wouldn't eat it, I won't sell it to my customers, and I want to make sure everything is something I would enjoy. This is like my home, so I want them to come to my house and enjoy everything they have in here. That is our main goal, and I think that people see it, all of our customers see it.
· Maya's [Official Site]