Two things saved Maíz, a tiny Mexican eatery and caterer on West St. Charles Street, from oblivion during the pandemic: a drive-up window and SpaceX.
That’s according to Steve Torres, a partner in the venture, which opened its doors in February 2020 only to close them again less than a month later due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“During the pandemic (the window) was our number one thing, because they came and they told us you can no longer have your doors open,” he said. “Not having this window, we probably would have closed.”
Maíz, the only restaurant on West St. Charles, occupies the former La Milpa Tortilleria, a West Brownsville institution for many years. John Villarreal, who owned that company, lives next door and still owns the building Maíz is in. According to legend, Brownsville native Kris Kristofferson once used Villarreal’s garage apartment as a practice space.
The fare consists of traditional Brownsville staples: barbacoa, menudo, pozole, tamales and such. But the chalkboard menus on the wall — impeccable calligraphy courtesy of Silvia O’Bell, wife of co-owner Ruben O’Bell — contains some surprises as well. The restaurant’s other partner, Miguel Carmona, is from Mexico City, as is his brother Carlos, Maíz’s salsa and catering maestro.
They’re responsible for the fact that the menu also includes dishes such as quesa birria tacos and pambazo sandwiches, which use real teleras, or Mexican bread.
“They’ve done a little bit of everything,” Torres said of the Carmonas. “They’re very seasoned when it comes to cooking.”
Carlos once worked at Danny’s, a popular Sam Perl Boulevard restaurant that is no more.
“He was one of the cooks at Danny’s,” Torres said. “I remember eating enmoladas there. He made them (at Maíz) one time and it’s become one of our bigger hits.”
Birria tacos, meanwhile, are enjoying their moment in the sun, he said, comparing it to when bistek tacos set everyone on fire.
How Torres and the Carmona brothers found each other is through Golden Corral. Torres was departing as the restaurant’s marketing director at the same time Carlos and Miguel were heading for the exits.
“They told me, hey, let’s open a restaurant,” Torres said. “I said no, I’m trying to get out of this business.”
The Carmonas ultimately won him over, though he says he told them to come up with a business plan and find an investor, which is where O’Bell came in.
It was all nearly for naught thanks to the pandemic, until a certain rocket company called one day in early June 2020, Torres said.
“Business just kind of came to a halt,” he said. “We were fortunate to get that great call from SpaceX that they needed food. That’s truthfully what propelled us to another level at that point. We were here, stagnant, like super flat-lined, and then called us and said hey can you deliver us a 100 plates?”
The next order was for 200, then 300, 400 all the way up to 800 at its peak, Torres said, adding that the company patronizes many small, independent restaurants around as well as corporate chains like Whataburger.
“They try to use as many people locally as possible, which I respect,” he said. “They’ve used us. They’ve used Mr. Taco. They’ve used a ton of restaurants here in Brownsville. They’ve used Main Street Deli. They’ve used New York Deli. They’ll just call you. Hey, can you send us 500 sandwiches?”
Torres said he knew the orders would stop coming at some point, though he believes Maíz is still in rotation. At any rate, SpaceX was a lifeline at a critical juncture, he said.
“We knew it would eventually come to a halt, but fortunately we didn’t have to go after loans or anything,” Torres said. “We were paying everybody still. Even though work was slow, we were still able to pay everybody and not have to go to unemployment.”