Carla Meyer

Dining review: Comparing two Mexican restaurants in urban Sacramento

I thought I knew which of two urban, modestly upscale but casual Mexican restaurants – that also specialize in sophisticated tequilas – would come out on top in my comparison.

I was mistaken.

It came down to a fundamental of the restaurant business: how you feel and how you are treated can affect how the food tastes and what you remember about your dining experience.

Azul on 20th Street and Mayahuel on K Street showcase tequila well, so I won't go into details about who does that better. Try them both, preferably while holding onto a secure object like a steel pole.

Both places have similar cuisines – everything from tacos and enchiladas to full platters and specialty seafood dishes – though the prices are higher, the selection is broader and the cooking more ambitious at Mayahuel. Neither place makes a decent tortilla soup.

For the past three years or so, I have enjoyed dropping by Azul. I thought I went for the food, but since my comparison, I realized I was there because of how the place looks and how I felt when I was there. I went for the experience, one that put me in the thick of a very Sacramento-on-the-way-back vibe, replete with optimism and energy and eclecticism.

Azul is about ambience – the cozy sophistication of the interior space, the boardwalk-style patio out front – in the center of the block from K Street to J Street that has been re-engineered as the MARRS project. It is relaxing, it is cool, and the people- watching outside is an entertaining cross section of the American mosaic – gay and straight, young and old, hipster and dork, along with the yoga folks coming and going in their latest yoga fashions – all finding something to like about this midtown block.

Mayahuel, a new place on K Street about 10 blocks from Azul, is in a part of town looking for its own brand of urban renewal.

Some think we'll find a cure for baldness before K Street gets renewal right. Yet, there's new energy and better energy down that way. Mayahuel, stylish and bustling, is not far from the big-budget, publicly subsidized revival on K Street where pizza pies bubble and blister in wood-burning ovens and, next door, mermaids adorned with waterproof mascara swim in a tank while waving to gawking tourists.

I thought, after my first visit to Mayahuel, that I didn't really care for the food. In hindsight, I didn't really care for how we were treated while we tried to eat the food – how we had to wait forever for the check, how we felt practically assaulted by a mariachi band that drowned out our conversation, how our order got jumbled and fumbled.

This kind of "customer service" sucked the life out of the food. It almost seemed like we were assuming the role of player-coach in the dining room, guiding these young pups through their paces. Where was the system? Where was the floor leader?

By then, I had made two visits, spent quite a bit of money at each location and was more confused than ever. Which restaurant was better? I was leaning toward Azul. I knew it. I liked it. What's more, I wanted to like it.

But I kept an open mind.

We went again to Mayahuel, this time choosing to sit at a table outside. The restaurant was crowded again, and there was more disarray in the service. The front of the house is like a football team that can't get on the scoreboard. There is no plan and little coaching. It is disorganized to the point of being chaotic. There should be no gaps, no dead air, no timing problems, no fumbles.

Some might argue that at an upscale-casual restaurant, service should be casual, too. Casual should not be confused with nonchalant. Casual service is wonderful when it focuses on being informal and cool and not so stodgy. Casual is horrible and misguided when it is inattentive.

Not watching tables, not being there when you're needed and not anticipating the next move actually leads to the opposite effect – it makes us uptight. It makes us think about things we shouldn't have to – like will we ever see our waiter again and will he ever bring us the check?

So, Azul is ahead on style and feel, and Mayahuel has fallen well behind – our visits there left us more frazzled than dazzled. I was starting to dislike the place, and my lasting memory was of the manager hobnobbing at a nearby table while we sat like dummies waiting and waiting for our waiter to return – so we could pay up and escape before the mariachi dude returned.

My overall opinion changed when I compared the food side by side – ordering a slew of comparable dishes from each restaurant and taking them home to poke and pry and ponder as I tasted.

It didn't go so well for Azul when the food was out of range of the staff's friendly demeanor and the appealing MARRS vibe. Side by side, Mayahuel was a clear winner. The camarones al diablo – shrimp that's supposed to have a sauce as fiery as the devil – was way hotter and far more interesting at Mayahuel. The Azul sauce was agnostic, not devilish, the shrimp were smaller and the heaping helping of sautéed onions and peppers at Mayahuel was nearly absent at Azul.

The mole poblano chicken at Azul didn't hold up to the scrutiny either. The chicken was flat, stiff and a bit dry, and no amount of decent mole sauce could save it. The mole at Mayahuel was dark and earthy in flavor, with that distinctive hint of cacao. But it was the chicken that was far better – thick and tender and juicy.

The enchiladas rojas (red sauce) were also distinctly different. Mayahuel's were plump and the sauce had firecracker heat on the finish that lingered and invited cold beer into the equation. Azul? It was a 40-watt bulb, when it needed stadium lighting. Too simple and too timid.

The ceviche? It was a misstep for Mayahuel, whose offering looked more like a panic attack than a seafood dish. It was overly busy with mint, cucumber and a lime flavor note that was too in-your-face. If there was fish in there, it was hiding. The ceviche at Azul is somewhat refined, swimming in a milky-white broth, with lots of chunks of seafood leading the way and a citrus note that came off more sensibly.

The tacos were much better at Mayahuel – bigger, and well-rounded in flavor, with better meat and more careful cooking. Azul's were skimpy and dry, clumsily smothered with chopped cilantro as if that would magically make everything seem more palatable.

In the end, Mayahuel's cooking won me over, away from all the missteps out front. Azul keeps things simple, having you order at the counter, then promptly serving your food at your table.

Going head to head like this can be educational. It's OK to be fooled if the joint is serving so-so food but really playing to its strengths – in Azul's case, its ambience. However, now is the time to reach for more with the food – do it better and with better ingredients.

In Mayahuel's case, it's not OK to be cooking food that is quite good – and I'd be remiss not to mention the beautifully prepared and deliciously layered grilled tilapia dish called Pescado Mayahuel – and then flubbing and fumbling out front where the show is.

All that work in the kitchen shouldn't be squandered by a dining room in disarray. Snap to it and quickly, before the bad taste becomes a permanent case of mistaken identity.