"You know," I glumly remark to my friend, "they used to actually light those candles."
So many similarly rueful metaphors jump out at me as I sit here that I feel like I'm visiting a ghost town. Oh ... Maria! has seriously declined in the past couple years.
When the restaurant first opened in 1999, many diners didn't really know what to make of the place. There were no chips and salsa slung on the table, the service was squeamishly formal, the menu was wordy and the ingredients unfamiliar.
Accustomed to low-rent Tex-Mex or the hyperactive, Technicolor vibe of Mexican chains, some guests felt ill at ease in the unashamedly sensual space with its old world decor, its prints of billowing, earthy Fernando Botero paintings and flickering candlelight. And the high-ish prices for such unfamiliar food could be disconcerting. Many patrons were blind to the original and exciting alchemy that was at work in the kitchen.
In order to appease reticent guests, the menu went through change after change. Eventually, it tasted like a carbon copy of its sister restaurant, Midtown's Zocalo. In the process, the food -- with its exotic ingredients like the pungent herb epazote and the renowned and truffle-like corn fungus called huitlacoche (pronounced "hweet-la-CO-chay") -- lost most of its magic.
When I heard that the restaurant's original chef, Alejandro Hernandez, had returned to the kitchen, I held out hope that the food might get some of its Mexico City groove back. For the most part, it hasn't.
Before I get snarky, though, here's a kind word: The margaritas ($6-$8.75) are still fantastic. Served in huge cylindrical glasses filled to the brim, they have a model balance of smooth, sweet, sour and salty that makes this drink such an utter, tranquilizing pleasure to slurp.
Onto the bad news: the food. Sopes Tricolores ($6.50) began life in 1999 as a sassy, signature appetizer. Fresh, plump masa corn patties were then filled with four different fillings -- chipotle, epazote and cilantro among them -- and surrounded by diced tomatoes, black beans, creme fraiche and queso fresco. These days, the patties taste dried out and are filled unimaginatively with the diced tomatoes, etc., that used to act merely as garnishes. Picadas Arracheras (corn patties stuffed with meat and served with green salsa) suffer from the same ailment ($6.95).
I was never wild about salads here, and they haven't improved with time. Nopalitos, or strips of cactus, in the Ensalada Huasteca ($7.75) are often slimy, a sign that they've been prepped too early before being served. Ensalata Hortaliza ($7.25) is a riff on spinach salad that's best shared. Tomatoes, avocado and bacon bits all mingle together amiably, but the acidic dressing bites back and the flavors get tired after a few bites.
Perhaps the biggest heartache -- the one I'll recount to my grandchildren someday with a faraway look in my eye as I recount tales of once-legendary restaurants -- is the tortillas. People, they were a thing of true beauty. The cooks would flavor and color them with epazote, chipotle or black beans. Servers doled them out fresh and hot, encouraging you to fold guacamole into them or to make sophisticated tacos with entrees like Ecstacy de Maria ($15.50), a grown-up fajita plate with beef tenderloin, black beans, sauteed bananas and creamed roasted peppers. That dish still holds up, by the way.
But the glory days of the tortillas are no more. The menu says they're still homemade, but I'm not buying it. If they are, they're made days ahead of time and reheated. They're wilted and brittle around the edges. I can only hang my head in mourning.
Yes, you can still get a decent meal here -- if you order astutely. The Oaxaca cheese soup with huitlacoche ($4.25 per cup) and the sopa de tortilla with a myriad of goodies floating in it ($6.50) are both piquant and satisfying. Cochinita Pibil, a classic Yucatan pork dish flavored with citrus and slow cooked in a banana leaf, has deep kinship with barbecue ($10.25). Pollo Oh ... Maria! ($13.95) is a holdover from the original menu that still shines: A moist chicken breast is stuffed with diced, cooked fruit and smothered in a burnished almond sauce that smoothes out the fruit's sweetness. And I've always been fond of the restaurant's unaffected tres leches cake ($5.95), moist and spiked with Rompope, an eggnog liquor.
But overall, my meals here leave me feeling that the kitchen needs to raise its self-awareness. So much of the food seems slipshod and mass produced, which is the exact opposite of its fundamental mission. Someone needs to light those exhausted candles once again and invite t he original, keen-witted spirit of Oh ... Maria! back into this place, before it flickers out for good.