When I invited a few friends to tag along for dinner at Maiz, a Colombian street food restaurant that opened this April after two years upstairs at Portland’s Public Market, they pulled out their phones to look up the restaurant’s website. Then, almost in unison, they asked: “What’s an arepa?”

I stumbled a bit, first describing it like a fatter, stuffable corn tortilla, then settled on asking them to picture what might happen if a pancake, pita and cornbread got together to co-parent a griddled, gluten-free baby.

Once I started visiting the boldly hued, counter-service-only restaurant, I realized my friends were asking the wrong question: How you eat an arepa at Maiz is the real issue.

Just ask the girl at an adjacent table during my second visit. She picked up a compostable fork (all single-use materials at Maiz are compostable) and proceeded to deliver a tutorial on how to prepare an arepa for consumption.

“Mommy, now watch me,” she commanded, plunging the tines and handle of her fork deep into the center of the filled arepa, then muscling it up and down, side to side, as if unclogging a drain. “Now you can eat. Just be careful. I made a hole,” she said, pushing a distended corn flap back into place, only to dislodge pico de gallo from another, an inch away. “Oops,” she giggled.

Her method might have been messy, but the kid was onto something. And clearly, I wasn’t the only one left scratching my head over how Maiz assembles their arepas.

Through a slit at the top, co-owner and kitchen manager Niky Watler’s staff spoon fillings inside, packing them like the stratified deposits in an archaeological dig. Start at the top of the chicken-filled Basico ($9.45), and you’ll unearth freshly chopped pico de gallo that spills over the side, followed by a layer of juicy, curry-spiced chicken breast, then a soggy bottom layer comprising nothing but melted mozzarella and feta cheeses.

Until I saw my young neighbor MacGyver a solution, I figured it must be impossible to eat an arepa without chewing through each discrete layer in succession. I tried the fork-and-knife method, levering off the side of the arepa, then swirling all the fillings together before slicing it like a pizza. It worked, but the flimsy paper liner on my basket shredded as I cut. I must have eaten half the sheet.

The Basico – an arepa stuffed with chicken, cheese and pico de gallo – with a side of pan de bono and a cup of verduritas, or spicy green sauce. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When I emailed a Colombian friend – a lifelong Bogotà resident who spends each January in Cartagena, where Watler comes from – she described arepas where every bite yields a mouthful of all the fillings at once. It sounded like heaven.

And yet, even a frustrating arepa can still be pretty great.

Best of the bunch is the Upgrade ($10.60) — a version that starts with the same foundation as the chicken-filled Basico and adds an extra layer of sweet, slow-roasted pork shoulder. “That’s for people who can’t make up their minds if they feel like chicken or pork,” general manager and co-owner Martha Leonard said with a laugh.

Of the seven house sauces Maiz offers as accompaniments, the yogurt-tempered fire of the Suerito and the ultra-garlicky, aioli-esque Ajo sauce work best with its meat-filled arepas.

On vegetarian arepas like the hearty corn, avocado and tender black-bean-filled Beans Please ($9.75), or the bland stewed cauliflower-and-chickpea Veg. Overload ($10.60) opt for something brighter, like spicy, scallion-based Verduritas that injects a necessary shot of vibrancy into the dish.

Those sauces (as well as the sweet-tart Roja Dulce) also offer an extra kick to deep-fried cornmeal empanadas ($5) filled with a rotating selection of stuffings. The pulled pork version I tasted was so good, I didn’t even mind that it was the only variety available on each of my three recent visits.

Indeed, figuring out what’s on offer at Maiz can be tricky. I would have liked to try the Beet The Heat, a coffee-rubbed beet salad, or the North Spore mushroom arepa — both listed on the permanent menu as specials — but neither was available. Platanos maduros (sweet plantains, $5) were similarly an on-again, off-again menu item. One server on my first visit even told me, “We don’t sell those anymore.” I didn’t see her on my next visit, so I tried my luck and was rewarded with a golden, baked plantain split down the center to allow for a molten stream of melted mozzarella cheese. Sadly for me, I have yet to encounter another plantain at Maiz.

“We don’t do those specials all the time,” Martha Leonard said. “The platanos maduros have to be at the peak of ripeness — it’s dependent on the food item, and we can’t do anything to speed them up. That’s what happens when you’re small and you do everything by hand. And sometimes things just sell out on a specific day.” They certainly deserve to.

Just like the choclo ($5), a softer, more pancake-like take on the arepa, made with milk and topped with more of Maiz’s signature feta-and-mozzarella blend. Almost a dessert, this sweet-savory treat is one of Maiz’s staff favorites as well. “Oh man, you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a choclo,” one counter staffer replied when I asked for appetizer recommendations.

“But the real story is over here,” he said, patting the top of the glass-and-chrome oven housing three lonely-looking rolls. They turned out to be the best thing I tasted at Maiz: pan de bono ($3.25), a springy quick bread bun made from cheese, yucca and corn flours. You may already be familiar with its lighter, more open-crumbed sibling, Brazil’s pao de queijo — a bread that, thanks to its lack of gluten, made the rounds as a pass-around hors d’oeuvre at nearly every institutional gala in the mid-2010s.

But don’t confuse the two. The Colombian version is dense, with a spongy texture like a savory cheese mochi, its self-generating exterior crust delicate and crumbly as it is torn. Dip pan de bono in one of Maiz’s sauces — floral cilantro blitzed with oil or even the Rosada, essentially a blend of ketchup and mayonnaise—or just eat it plain. No premeal machinations required.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

 


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