Certain food items, especially those containing raw egg, do not keep well--a fact that was lost on our exciting if dangerous grandma. She whipped up feasts with relish weeks in advance, perhaps months, thanks to the deep freeze in her garage. Platters of hors d'oeuvres and trays of cookies were set out, avoided by anyone who wanted to live. I remember my first and last rum ball, age eight. Priss had a couple healthy nips off the bottle herself, before dumping the rest into those powdered-sugar-coated 90-proof balls. No bun-wearing old lady, she was a wild girl: loud, bright, and sexy, with a penchant for outlandish fashion and painful practical jokes. She wasn't hostess material--she was a party. As we bid her goodbye, she'd totter over with packages of leftovers, which we'd forget, or if reminded, let fly out the car window half a mile from her house.
So I am never sure what to expect when someone tells me a particular dish was their grandma's blue-ribbon winner at the county fair. I do know that Hayden Smisson's grandma is a genius. Mr. Smisson is the new chef at the ol' Maple Leaf Grill, a neighborhood bar that evolved into a neighborhood restaurant institution. Now located in a comfy house, featuring 12 or so beers on the living-room tap, the Maple Leaf packs regulars into its three intimate dining rooms. Smisson has brought his family's rich culinary heritage to the regular menu with items like Corn Fritters ($4.95), mixing it up with a Northwesty zeal for multi-culti fusion, hence the fresh mango chutney that the maple-syrup-sweetened, cotija-cheese-topped, fantastic fritters arrive with. Hey, this multi-culti stuff can work sometimes, as in the case of the instantly gone fritters.
The slightly disappointing Blackboard Steamers ($7.95)--steamed clams and mussels in a Szechuan black bean and chile sauce--did not disappear as rapidly. (Chiles? What chiles?!) This was fortuitous, since our entrées' proportions were Family Mexican Restaurant-sized. I have a soft spot for Value in regard to food. It's not every day I can let go of $12.95. But if I receive something as big and grand as the Maple Leaf's Creole Symphony, I get a warm feeling inside: catfish, prawns, mussels, and clams in a tomato bourbon sauce atop rice, sprinkled with brutally spicy "Texas caviar." This caviar business should be treated with the utmost respect and a light touch.
The special Chuletas de Cerdo con Achiote ($14.95) caught my eye with all that Spanish and the words "grilled pork chops" following. It is good to see the pork chop treated so tenderly, so lemony, as in this rendition of Smisson's Cuban grandfather's specialty, with solid black beans, plantain fritters, and a zippy mango escabèche (fancy food talk for "marinated cold salad"). Grandfather was a good, good man, I think.
In a strange and momentary stab at healthful living, I ordered the Calabazitas ($10.95), a stew of summer squash, chayote, mellow-spicy poblanos, and slices of corn on the cob in a tomato and oregano broth. After ordering, I panicked. What had I done, ordering a VEGETARIAN entrée? Healthful-living food makes me anxious with all its fiber whipping through me, leaving me with hunger pangs an hour after eating. Perhaps it was the promise of MORE corn fritters that accompanied this dish. Whatever it was that made me do it, this generous stew, daubed with cilantro cream, produced a minor miracle on my tongue. My taste buds shimmied in delight as I crunched on the chayote, a squash-like fruit so green and firm and un-squash-like I had to ask... turns out this is Smisson's grandmother's recipe, and now anyone who eats at the Maple Leaf can order this big bowl of love.
Hallelujah for grandmas. Mine taught me to dance, and Smisson's handed down some kick-ass kitchen magic that set off a party in my mouth.
Maple Leaf Grill
8929 Roosevelt Way NE, 523-8449. Mon-Fri 11:30 am-10 pm; Sat-Sun 5-10 pm. $$
Price Scale (per entrée)
$ = 10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up