There are two new Mexican restaurants in Clearwater. Let's start with the service. At Los Mayas, you walk in and take a seat. Menus sit tabletop, at the ready. The chip-salsa-water guy zooms over and chips you, salsas you and waters you without a lot of chitchat. Your server follows shortly to take the order. Bam, the process is under way.
A few blocks away at Rio Grande Mexican Grille, it's all a little more confusing, servers sometimes conveying the strong impression that, beyond being new to serving, they may also be new to restaurants. An example: "What wines do you have by the glass?" "Um, we only have one. It's the dark kind. See it over there?"
Rio Grande opened at the end of September in the space that used to be taken up by Greenbacks. It's a huge room with a gilded, pressed-tin ceiling and weathered terra cotta tiled floors; an inviting 43-foot-long bar is visible through rounded archways. Its cuisine is signaled by hanging clusters of dried chilies, while over at Los Mayas, also a generously portioned box of a restaurant, Corona de Mayo pennants flutter long after the 5th of May. Los Mayas is fairly new as well, its owner Lorenzo Castrejon having split with his partner last year. He has changed the name from Los Mariachis to Los Mayas and added a number of new specials.
At a squint, these restaurants have much in common: mid-priced, familiar Mexican-American staples served in a pleasant setting. But Los Mayas has the upper hand in sheer competence.
Enticed by the menu description of the albondigas, "the signature appetizer," we were told that Rio Grande, a month into business, no longer carried the little meatballs. We opted for the tortilla soup ($3.95 cup, $4.95 bowl) instead — no tortilla strips involved, it was a vegetable soup with chicken, strangely sweet. House guacamole ($3.95) is loaded with cucumber, a somewhat unwelcome addition, and empanadas ($6.50) possess an inelegant and salty olive tapenade in the filling.
Beef tacos ($7.95), their accompanying Mexican rice and refried beans, pulled pork enchiladas ($8.50), and a couple of burrito selections ($7.50-$9.50) were undistinguished and industrial tasting, reminiscent of taco day in middle school. An improvement on middle school, there are frozen and on-the rocks margaritas ($4.50), the former too melty and foamy right from the get-go.
Rio Grande owner Brian Beck, formerly of Colorado, has instituted DJ nights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays and Fridays to entice Clearwater's young revelers, but the food just up the street at Los Mayas explains the marked difference in average lunch traffic.
Los Mayas' version of tortilla soup, called Maya soup ($6.50), brings a rich broth crowded with tomato, onion, chicken, avocado, scallion and slowly softening tortilla chips — pure comfort food. Combos hover around $6.25 at lunch and $8.25 at dinner, difficult choices all: one enchilada, one tamale, rice and beans? Or one chalupa, one chili relleno and one enchilada? All equally meritorious. Ground beef is the default filling, but the shredded chicken is a tiny step up. At dinner, a special Mayan-style cream sauce gets ladled over a range of options from chicken to shrimp and poblano chilies ($9.50-$10.50), a mushroomy, oniony sauce that invariably gets scooped with a tortilla chip or two into extinction.
The newly opened Cleveland Street District is an attractive redevelopment project in Clearwater, worthy of some exciting new destination restaurants. Rio Grande Mexican Grille might fit the bill if it commits to greater diligence in the kitchen and in training its staff. Meanwhile, Los Mayas lures people seven blocks eastward with its easy, good cheer and solid, dependable Mexican staples.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.