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Maria Maria

Restauranteer Jeff Dudum and Carlos Santana strike a chord in Walnut Creek.


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Photography by Sara Remington

Fans of Carlos Santana be warned: Much has been made of the legendary guitarist’s involvement in Walnut Creek’s new Mexican restaurant, Maria Maria. He is indeed a partner in the venture, but “Black Magic Woman” does not play on a loop over the sound system, and none of his guitars is on display. To the casual observer, the restaurant’s only connection to Santana is its name—an appropriation of the hit song from his Grammy-winning 1999 album, Supernatural.

This is especially surprising when you consider that Maria Maria is spearheaded by Dudum Sports and Entertainment, the restaurant group famous for Walnut Creek favorites Bing Crosby’s and McCovey’s, and Joe DiMaggio’s Italian Chop House in San Francisco. These celebrity-themed restaurants specialize in nostalgia, creating a sort of escape to the namesake celebrities’ pasts.

Tortilla soup is finished tableside
Maria Maria, however, is an upmarket casual-dining restaurant that aims to bring regional Mexican food to the public. As Dudum Sports and Entertainment CEO Jeff Dudum says, “What P. F. Chang’s did for Asian food, Maria Maria will do for Mexican food.” To that end, the company is rolling out the concept in Mill Valley, Santa Rosa, and Tempe, Arizona. If the popularity of the first Maria Maria is any barometer, Dudum may be right.

Since it opened in October, the restaurant has been swarmed. On weekends, the bar teems with singles on the town. Most nights, the dining room is chockablock with couples, businessmen, and families. Clearly, the buzz is a draw, but diners at Maria Maria also seem taken with the food. This is not the gloppy Tex-Mex combination plate mishmash that you find at so many Mexican eateries.
La Toronja cocktails


To bring the world of mole and habañero chilies to a broader audience, Dudum hired Roberto Santibáñez. For four years, Santibáñez was the chef at one of the oldest high-end Mexican restaurants in the country, Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas. Then, five years ago, he became culinary director for the East Coast’s renowned Rosa Mexicano restaurants.

Santibáñez’s understanding of regional Mexican cooking and Nuevo Latino cuisine is evident in the dishes at Maria Maria. Although he does not oversee the kitchen on a day-to-day basis—Executive Chef Josh Perkins sees to that—Santibáñez’s personal history is there. It’s in the seafood casserole that emulates the cooking style of Veracruz—the state on the Gulf of Mexico where his mother’s family is based—and in black beans with avocado leaf and cinnamon cooked as they might be in his father’s home state, Oaxaca.

When the kitchen is on, the food at Maria Maria is startlingly good. Take the duck tacos. On paper, they read like a fusion nightmare: “soft corn tortillas with slow-braised shredded duck, covered with roasted tomato-habañero cream sauce, topped with chopped onion, cilantro, and sesame seeds.” Whoa. But the dish is indeed greater than the sum of its many, many parts. The duck is succulent, suffused with tomato and the smoky kick of chipotle chili. A hint of allspice lifts the habañero-cream sauce, which ripples with the floral heat of one of the world’s hottest chilies.

Duck tacos with roasted tomoato-habanero cream sauce.
The dishes here are spicier than the average diner may expect. To which we say, Bring it on. The heat is there in both the tomatillo and the chile manzano salsas brought to the table at the beginning of the meal. It’s in the atypical tortilla soup, with its thick puree of pumpkin seeds, roasted poblano chilies, and tomatillos poured over cubes of panela cheese and mushrooms. According to Santibáñez, the heat is no accident. “Mexican food is based on chilies,” he says. “They always have a hit; the chef just has to know how to handle it.”

With a menu as long and wide-ranging as the one at Maria Maria, not every dish is a success. Mixed wild-mushroom fajitas are bland and stringy, their dipping sauce strangely akin to chili-spiked Miracle Whip. A side of guajillo-saffron rice barely registers either chili or saffron. Although the sorbets come in creative flavors such as tamarind and pineapple-mint, the flavors are nearly imperceptible and the texture is icy and chunky, not smooth.

The tastefully decorated dining room.
The eager waitstaff takes the edge off the kitchen’s occasional missteps. The servers are a black-clad, barely post-teenage brood, but their youth belies their professionalism. They appear when needed and come armed with either the answer to any food-related questions or the modesty to seek out someone who knows. It’s not uncommon to see Dudum himself working the room.

Dudum’s zeal for his work is beginning to grab attention. Both Sophia Loren’s people and the estate of Babe Ruth have approached him about opening restaurants with his company. His answer, as he tells it: “Thank you very much, but we’re focusing on what we’re doing now.” He certainly has enough projects up and running, and if he keeps fine-tuning Maria Maria, he might have his biggest hit yet.

At A Glance


What Makes It Special: A lively upscale atmosphere where the presence of founding partner Carlos Santana is a whisper, not a shout. Live guitar music Thursday through Sunday nights and regional Mexican dishes.

Don’t Miss: Succulent duck tacos, braised short ribs in blackberry mole sauce, and the brightly flavored guacamole made with fresh chili and lime.

The Space: Relaxed but sophisticated, with much of the dining room accented by candlelight. A separate bar-lounge area includes patio seating.

Pleasant Surprise: Margaritas are sweetened with an agave cordial instead of cloying triple sec.

When to Go: For a scene, weekends and prime time—the bar is thronged even on weeknights. For relative quiet, a late lunch or early dinner.

Bonus: The servers couldn’t be more pleasant, informed, or welcoming.

Contact: Maria Maria, 1470 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek, (925) 946-1010,
http://www.mariamariarestaurants.com.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily.
Price: Appetizers $7–$14, entrées $13–$24.

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