When Maize Mexican Grill took over the little shack on First and Green in 2011, it was without much fanfare or anticipation. The restaurant, which previously housed Ye Olde Donuts, Noe’s BBQ, and Derald’s over the previous decade, opened quietly, with just a small vinyl banner out front that had a drawing of a couple of Mexican farmers tilling land.
I reviewed it on a whim, two weeks after it opened, stumbling into it with my friend John late at night, just to see what it was all about. We both left with full bellies and with a sense of true elation. This was truly fantastic Mexican food; the owner Armando Sandoval was fairly new to town and opened up shop knowing that there was nowhere else in Champaign-Urbana that was doing his country’s cuisine quite as well as he could. Tortillas and salsas were made fresh. The proteins were unctuous. The menu featured items you would normally find only south of the border: huitlacoche, flor de calabazas, lengua de cerdo, cabeza — things that were previously only available inside Mexican groceries, but never on menus for ordering.
It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Within weeks, the place was basically line out the door at lunch, and extended to dinner. He had to double his staff, and work 16 hour days to keep up. Maize had arrived, and a new standard for serving antojitos was set.
Antojitos is where Maize truly excels. That word translates to “little cravings” and it’s sort of a perfect way to describe what you are eating: tacos, tlacoyos, gorditas, huaraches, quesadillas. It’s what Mexicans eat on the street, from a cart, standing with a plate in hand, no table. From morning until late, this is available pretty much everywhere down south in North America, and it was now available in Champaign-Urbana, for the first time really.
We’ve not stopped writing about Maize over the past decade, and for good reason. Sandoval keeps doing the hard work, expanding into a bigger space with a second location in Downtown Champaign, into a food truck, and onto the tables of so many parties through catering that is as ubiquitous in town as the day is long.
The food itself is almost universally acclaimed. It’s a restaurant that people who live here bring their visiting friends to because it’s a source of pride. Maize stands with the best food being served anywhere in the United States of America. That it comes from the United Mexican States should be a showcase and reminder to us that we all benefit from immigration, and always have. We are a better community for having celebrated this restaurant, and its founder, Armando Sandoval. Indeed, this is what our country is supposed to look like. (Seth Fein)
Photo by Sam Logan