Despite being almost 10,000 miles apart, Mexico and India have surprising similarities when it comes to food. The chefs Norma Listman and Saqib Keval discovered exactly that one night in Mexico City, when they created a menu for a friend’s dinner party. The result is what may be the capital’s most inventive new restaurant, Masala y Maiz, in the residential neighborhood of San Miguel Chapultepec.
The project was never supposed to happen. After years working in some of the Bay Area’s top restaurants, Ms. Listman, a Mexico native, moved back to Mexico City last year to pursue the study of corn and launch a tortilleria. The California-born Mr. Keval — who is of Indian and East African descent — stayed in Oakland, hosting community-based dining and activism events. But then came an offer that the real-life couple couldn’t refuse: a lease on a three-story building in Mexico City, complete with a research kitchen and studio apartment (currently in use as a chef-in-residence program).
But their road has not been an easy one. The original opening date was planned for Sept. 20, 2017, the day after an earthquake ravaged the city. Instead, for the next month, they delivered hot meals all over the city. Then, after a successful October debut, they were closed in April for bureaucratic reasons still unclear to them. Refusing to pay a mordida, or bribe, to the government (as is common in Mexico), they spent the next five months hosting pop-ups in restaurants around town while continuing to submit, and resubmit, paperwork.
Finally, they found an ally in someone who secured a meeting with a higher-up to review their case, and last month the doors opened once again. “To me, it’s a victory for all and a way to show the community that it is possible to fight the system,” Ms. Listman said.
As to their food, “we spent a lot of time researching, finding flavors that overlap. Almost everything on the menu exists in each of our cultures in some way,” Mr. Keval said.
First up were the esquites Makai Pakka, inspired by both Mexican street-food corn and a dish that Mr. Keval’s parents made in Kenya. The twice-cooked heirloom kernels were plump, meaty and had a discernible pop. Once stirred in, a dollop of chile mayo made with blue-corn husk ash added a welcome kick. Next, seared peel-and-eat jumbo shrimp were liberally coated with a smoky, maroon-colored masala.
But no dish exemplified the owners’ cerebral approach better than uttapam, a tangy pancake that’s miraculously both crispy and spongy and layered with a zigzag of tart tamarind-date chutney, a simple oil-based salsa, tangy yogurt and soft cubes of potato. The dosa-like base is made from Mexican rice and garbanzos that go through four stages of fermentation (a process the chefs tested countless times).
A neighborhood ordinance dictates that the restaurant can’t be open for dinner (except private events) or serve hard liquor. So the short-yet-stellar drink list includes hard-to-find natural wines and a mellow, custom-made hibiscus flower mead. We paired the latter with a Pacman-shaped cardamom merengue, broken open to reveal a light, lemon curd filling, artfully plated with mandarin slices, date slivers and edible purple borage flowers.
While the menu is firmly rooted in both worlds, the restaurant’s identity is decidedly, and proudly, Mexican, from organic vegetables, ceramic dishware, denim uniforms and even salt.
The owners have ambitious plans, including a rooftop garden, fresh tortillas and rotis, whole-animal roasting, and an on-site mill for processing corn. “We’re going to serve a lot of indigenous varieties,” Ms. Listman said, “The best thing we can do is cook what is here.”
Masala y Maiz, Calle Gobernador Protasio Tagle 66A, San Miguel Chapultepec; masalaymaiz.com. An average lunch for two, minus drinks and tip, is 570 pesos (about $30).