Correa sees his style of cooking as an essential evolution to educate people about an overlooked culinary tradition.
"I know that it's not just about making this food that I find delicious to myself. It's also making that food to advocate (for Mayan culture)," Correa said.
While many Mexican restaurants harness the Mayan name, few establishments actually present Mayan cuisine. The exact size of the Mayan population in the Bay Area is hard to pinpoint, but the number was estimated at 5,000 in 2002. Correa and his business partner Katie Voong assert that they run the only Mayan restaurant on the Peninsula, although other restaurants might serve a handful of the culture's most well-known dishes, including cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork traditionally cooked in underground ovens, and poc chuc, pork marinated with citrus that may have originated from efforts to preserve meat through brining.
At times, it can be difficult to draw the line between Mayan and Mexican cuisine, as some aspects of Mayan cooking have been adopted as Mexican, and international influences, including colonization, shaped the Yucatecan version of Mayan food that Correa presents. Maya is a term used to collectively describe many diverse groups that live throughout Central America.
Correa said that even in his home country of Mexico, Mayan cuisine is underappreciated. Despite the popularity of the same few dishes, he said that people are unwilling to familiarize themselves with the cuisine.
"(Names of dishes) are in the Mayan language, the names are kind of foreign even to Mexicans. ... We have so many different dishes that are really delicious that people don't even want to try," he said.
Voong and Correa started working together four years ago at K Tea Cafe, a bubble tea and jianbing shop that Voong owns. The business relied heavily on catering gigs that disappeared when the pandemic started. Learning from Correa and noticing how the fruit and vegetable-forward Mayan cuisine lends itself to current trends in dining, she and Correa decided to partner on Mayan Kitchen, which opened one month ago in downtown Sunnyvale. K Tea Cafe has become a delivery-focused business without a dining room.
It is true that many of Mayan cuisine's elements link closely to the demands of diners in the Bay Area. Many items are naturally gluten-free, and others can be made vegan. The cuisine originated around fruits, vegetables and a robust agricultural system.
"(My mother and grandmother) mapped out which food is available when, and they just put it together in a delicious way," Correa said. "That's how I grew up eating. That's how I learned food is supposed to be."
Voong and Correa are hesitant, however, to prepare foods exactly as Correa remembers them. The duo has a strong partnership in the kitchen because of their complementary expertise in different cuisines. Voong has experience in Japanese, Korean and Chinese restaurants, and Correa came up through French and Italian kitchens. Voong describes Mayan Kitchen's menu as "handcrafted" because each item emerges through collaboration. Voong offers feedback on how to make dishes appealing to the restaurant's diverse customer base, and Correa attempts to adapt the home cooking he learned from his family.
Much of the menu is prepared using Mayan techniques and includes panuchos, tortillas filled with black beans and then fried, and salbutes, tortillas that are fried fresh to ensure they puff up. Many of the restaurant's sauces are based on habaneros, which provide heat but are also aromatic and flavorful. They are one of the main crops cultivated in the Yucatan.
At Mayan Kitchen, the spice level is toned down, and most dishes are available in variations that allow for adding chicken or beef to create a more robust meal. Vegan and gluten-free options also are prevalent at the restaurant. There are some dishes borrowed from a seemingly random assortment of cuisines, including vegan cheesecake, persistently trendy bao and bruschetta.
Correa's cochinita pibil is served alongside traditional accompaniments of rice and black beans, but he adds a favorite childhood snack, xec, a salad of jicama and citrus, to the plate. He finds that the salad brings brightness and acidity to the rich dish but admits that the pairing would puzzle his mother. Unlike his parents, Correa cannot speak any Mayan languages fluently. His family encouraged him to focus on learning Spanish to access more professional and economic opportunities across the world.
"(Although) I don't know the language, I know the food. ... I want to share the part (of Mayan culture) that I actually have available to me," he said.
As Correa seeks to expand the menu to include more meals he remembers from his childhood, he will look for Voong's approval alongside feedback from clientele who also grew up with Mayan cuisine. He is delighted when customers tell him how happy they are to see a restaurant bringing Mayan culture to the community.
"That is the best compliment I can get," Correa said.
Mayan Kitchen, tinyurl.com/mayankitchen, 139 S Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale; 650-305-6595.
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