Background: Emilio Dominguez started his restaurant career as a 19-year-old dishwasher in 1986, when he moved to South Florida from Mexico. He spent the next two decades garnering restaurant experience before launching Casa Maya Grill in 2008, a restaurant that Sun Sentinel readers voted "Best Mexican Restaurant" in 2011.
Ambience: We immediately got a warm vibe from Casa Maya's classy yet inviting decor. The restaurant's exterior is accented by low-lit multicolored lamps, brick walls and high-top tables. Patrons chat with the bartender at a small bar to the left of the entrance. The textured walls are painted in warm yellows and oranges, with recessed lighting pointing to Mexican-themed paintings and wooden masks. Star-shaped metal lamps with blue glass gems hang above the dark, polished tables.
Starters: It can be tough to find tasty chips that aren't soaked in oil (I'm looking at you, Chili's). Casa Maya's chips come through in a big way with loads of flavor, freshness and tiny air bubbles. They're served with two types of salsa: a mild, pureed, tomato-based salsa, and a mildly sweet roast-corn salsa with cream that had us asking for thirds.
We paired the chips with queso fundido ($9), a bowl of white melted cheese that's impossible to hate. These gooey strands of cheese stretched so far that our table looked for a moment as if it had been attacked with silly string. The tortilla soup was tasty, if unorthodox ($5), being more in the realm of a creamy tomato bisque with hints of chipotle and tortilla chips. Guacamole ($5) was simple and top-notch, and well worth ordering. Ceviche with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice and a bit of jalapeno ($11) was light on the acidity and heavy on the tomatoes, resulting in a fresh, bruschetta-esque appetizer perfect for a hot day.
Entree excellence: At Casa Maya, the entrees go easy on the spiciness and feature subtle, complex flavors that aren't found at cheaper Mexican restaurants. The pipian verde burrito ($12) featured chicken that was moist throughout, paired with a nuanced pumpkin seed and cilantro sauce that charmed us. Steak tacos al carbon ($13), three tacos with plush tortillas wrapped in tinfoil, are a solid choice. Chicken enchilada with red mole sauce ($16) featured that same moist chicken with a lighter-than-average sauce. The highlight of dinner was the carne tampiqueña ($15), a thin, grilled steak with red onions covered in a deep, delicious chipotle sauce. The steak was perfectly seared, so tender it could be pulled apart. The accompanying refried beans are lightly smoked and don't overpower the entrees, as is often the case.
Sweet! Even if you're a guava hater, order the incredible guava cheesecake ($6), a rich, creamy slice in which the fruit mildly accents the cheesecake. Flan ($4) is traditionally prepared and doesn't disappoint.
Liquid assets: Casa Maya's focus is on tasty food, and not on getting customers hammered with cheap margaritas. You'll find a basic selection of sangria, mostly South American wines and Mexican beers.
301 SE 15th Terrace, Deerfield Beach
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Bar: Wine and beer
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, kids' menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes