An A-Maya-zing Taste of Heritage

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Photos and captions by Noah Sheidlower
By Noah Sheidlower

Approximately one year ago, a small family of Guatemalan descent gazed upon a small barren space on Northern Boulevard. The family, having looked at multiple locations, purchased the uninviting space situated next to a small, successful Italian restaurant. With their ancestry in mind, the Quintanilla family began planning the restaurant, painstakingly placing Mayan-inspired memorabilia throughout. Within a few months of developing recipes and crafting the decor, the Quintanillas opened Mayan 502 Café to the public.
Mayan 502 Café is a five-table restaurant specializing in Guatemalan cuisine with Mexican, El Salvadorian, and Argentinian influences. The Quintanillas saw opportunity in Great Neck due to the village’s sizeable Latin American population. While the staff tries to cater to an American crowd with options for less adventurous eaters, they mostly keep to their roots with respect to ambiance and recipes. The number 502 actually represents the Guatemalan country telephone code.
The exterior of the restaurant adds an element of brightness and boldness to the somewhat-lacking Northern Boulevard shopping scene: a black and white awning sharply contrasts a series of festively colored banners while small Guatemalan flags line up against a coating of vibrant red paint. A small decorative table sits just to the side of the door, encouraging people to look inside and learn about an unfamiliar culture.
The level of effort put into each element of the restaurant is quite extraordinary; there seems to be not one inch of space that the restaurant did not creatively improve in some way. Each table is layered with intricate and dynamic patterned tiles, covered by a traditional knitted blanket. The lemon-yellow walls are lined with beautifully executed paintings, colorful patterns, and ornate Mayan animal heads.
As soon as each customer steps on the welcome mat and admires the museum of Mayan artwork, the staff welcomes guests with a high level of enthusiasm. Immediately, the staff points out the various daily specials handwritten on numerous chalkboards throughout the restaurant. Mayan 502 Café offers a variety of authentic options throughout their 11-hour business day (9:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night). Their breakfast menu consists of a handful of egg and plantain dishes with flavors that parallel those of a traditional Guatemalan breakfast. The appetizers menu offers a full array of Guatemalan pupusas (corn tortillas) and small protein plates, such as spicy chorizo sausage. There are plenty of classic Mexican options, but they do not nearly compare to their house specialties. The Mexican options, such as their burrito, are not extremely complex and lack the level of passion put into each of their Guatemalan dishes. Their house specials are not only cheap (not one item on the entire menu exceeds $10) but also well executed; each ingredient is pronounced, balancing each dish’s acidity, flavor, and presentation.
While the menu is fantastic, the restaurant offers a recently introduced buffet-style lunch option everyday from 11:00 until 3:00 that features daily specials. On a recent Saturday lunch service, they had a succulent beef stew that lay in a small metal bin surrounded by other options such as chicken stew, porgie (a type of fish), and fresh tripe. The beef stew, served with yellow rice and refried beans, was savory and extraordinarily appetizing. The tender quality of the beef allowed it to absorb the pepper and onion sauce, sealing in all of the flavors. With a slight contrast to the slightly sweet beans, the melt-in-your-mouth meat dish definitely exceeded expectations.
The meal was elevated by the attentiveness of the bilingual staff: they brought the food over to the table with a sincere smile, making sure the dining experience was enjoyable.
In addition to making customers feel comfortable, the staff enjoys recommending chef specialties that aren’t clearly labeled on the menu. For instance, they often suggest their pupusas revueltas (corn tortilla with cheese and beans). They have a rich, moist consistency, complemented by a slightly savory cheese as well as a mild vegetable slaw in a vinegar sauce. Arguably their most recommended item, shuko, a Guatemalan hot dog, is a wonderful buy; the beautifully prepared Guatemalan sausage has a slight herbal taste, which pairs nicely with their creamy guacamole.
True to a typical Guatemalan diet, a huge percentage of the menu is meat-based. For those with vegetarian diets, though, the restaurant does offer a handful of options, such as basic salads and tortilla dishes.
Their vegetarian-friendly, freshly made fruit beverages transform a slightly more casual restaurant into a café environment, a much desired and appreciated dining format in modern times. From fresh plantain with milk to pineapple and soursop (a tropical fruit) smoothies, they have options for all palates. Their fruit smoothies, specifically the strawberry one, are unbelievably smooth and all-natural. And what is more relaxing than a cold drink with soft, rhythmic music playing in the background?
Along with one of their impressive beverages, a dessert baked fresh by their baker Manuel is a must-buy. With a Mexican heritage, Manuel prepares a variety of small pastries, colorful cookies, and large cakes for special events. Most, if not all, of their options are wonderfully sweet yet not overpowering. The flaky yet moist texture of their highly recommended cheese bread elevates its complex sweet and savory taste.
The Quintanillas, who spent huge amounts of effort on everything from the restaurant’s bakery to its atmosphere, look to attract all types of people to share generations of Guatemalan recipes and traditions with. By sticking to their roots, the staff makes clientele feel as if they are dining in someone’s Guatemalan living room. This homey atmosphere is essential to a quality restaurant; customers do not simply eat, pay, and leave. Rather, they become part of a family of people who care about their passion. This is the epitome of a dining experience.