Telling the difference between Buffalo-area Mexican restaurants is harder than it should be.
The dining rooms sport so many sombreros and pinatas, Corona swag and strings of chile pepper lights. It's even harder telling them apart looking at the plates that emerge from the kitchen. My standard strategy is to comb through the menu looking for something, anything, that's distinctive.
That was not a problem at Taqueria los Mayas, which opened near the corner of Union Road and Genesee Street in Cheektowaga. Now that I've been there, the problem has mutated into a monster: How can I decide among the best al pastor pork-and-pineapple tacos, in town, vibrant green and red chile sauces with your choice of settings, cheeseaholic-pleasing queso con chorizo, crackly-skinned quesadillas or the homey fry of chorizo and potatoes topped with an egg, with housemade corn tortillas?
My answer: You don't have to decide. Take friends, and get everything.
Like many of our best places, Taqueria los Mayas is a family restaurant run by a family. Jorge Anguiano and his extended clan make the corn tortillas, blend up the margaritas and hustle plates to diners. A full bar pours the usual pastel margarita flavors and draft Modelo in tall iced mugs, plus lots of other choices.
The locals are wise to the place, so you might have to wait for a table. A medicinal application of tequila may be necessary to blunt the pain.
Tacos compete for the best in town. A thorough taco topping bar includes salsas with six heat levels and extras like pico de gallo made of cactus. My favorite taco is al pastor ($2.50), chile-sauced pork with pineapple, which brings a touch of sweet heat.
Next would be the chorizo with egg ($3.25), which includes grilled queso fresco, crumbled sausage red with chile and spices, and an oozy fried egg. Then carnitas, pork cooked to fork-tender and finished crispy-edged on the griddle.
All of the taco meats can also be presented in quesadilla form ($4 small, $8 large), melted into a generous amount of cheese. The flour tortilla was griddled golden, not just cooked long enough to melt the cheese.
Torta sandwiches ($7.95) make another excellent taco meat delivery method. Meat is piled into a crusty roll that's been griddled, with queso fresco, mayonnaise, refried beans, pickled jalapeno, onions, tomatoes and avocado. The pickled jalapenos deliver less of a punch than fresh, making the combination tangy, not unbearable for midlevel heat eaters.
Suggested snack selections include the carne asada fries ($9.95), a heap of decent coated fries topped with tender grilled steak, with idles of sour cream and more of that fresh-cut pico de gallo of tomato, red onion, mild green chile and cilantro.
Also consider chori quezo ($6.25), more of that chile-laced sausage melted with Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheese, so tortilla chips dipped into the cauldron stretch strings for miles. They'll bring you all the chips you can down, gratis, with a soupy mild tomato salsa flecked with cilantro.
Another chip improvement option is chunky guacamole ($5.25), lively with a coarse pico de gallo stirred into barely crushed cubes of buttery avocado.
Hearty lunch plates ($1.25 more at dinner) are well represented by the fried potatoes with chorizo ($6.95), topped with an oozy egg and a shower of feta-like cheese. It's accompanied by rice and refried beans, plus flour or corn tortillas, which flirts with carb overkill, but the flavors muted my protests.
The refried beans are tastier than usual, cooked with lard and ancho chiles. (Black beans are vegan, and there are also charro beans, cooked with chorizo, bacon, jalapenos and hot dogs.)
Chilaquiles is fried tortilla chips briefly cooked in sauce, then served with a similar supporting act: rice, beans, egg, cheese. Its glory is the sauce, which comes in rojo (red) and green (verde). These sauces, which can be found topping burritos and stewed with meats across the menu, are a big part of what makes Taqueria los Mayas stand out.
Verde is a tangy amalgam of roasted tomatillos, poblano peppers, cilantro and onion. Rojo is a smoky, dank concoction powered with four kinds of chiles, knowledge shruggingly simple to Mexican abuelas but has somehow escaping the ability of most local restaurants.
Don't want to choose? Ask for dishes like Los Cuates ($13.55), two steak or chicken burritos, one covered in rojo sauce, the other verde. (I'd skip the milanesa ($12.95), or breaded beef cutlet, which was diminutive and overcooked.)
Desserts included flake-coated fried ice cream ($5.25), chewy churros ($5.65) and sopapillas, fried flour tortillas topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup, all solid but skippable.
That's good – you'll want to dedicate all your capacity to the tacos, lunch plates and sauced offerings that make Taqueria los Mayas stand out.
Taqueria los Mayas – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 3525 Genesee St., Cheektowaga, 906-3730
Prices: Tacos $2.50-$3.55, lunches $6.25-$8.25, entrees $7.50-$22.55
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Wheelchair accessible: Dining room yes, bathroom no
Gluten free: Sopes, enchiladas Mayas, more choices