This past December, upscale Mexican restaurant Maize launched in the 55-year-old building that once housed Carmelo’s Cucina Italiana for nearly 40 years. Inside, the design of the new restaurant is welcoming with muted touches of orange, blue, green and yellow in the main dining room. An abstract mural splashes color across the wall. The ambience straddles the line between upscale and casual as does the cuisine. 

The Flautas de Puerco, served with a raw verde salsa, reflects Fabian Saldana’s finesse with homemade salsas and cheeses that make their way onto many of the restaurant’s dishes.  

True to its name, maize, or corn, is a vital part of the restaurant’s fare. Saldana has incorporated nixtamalization, a process that combines lime with corn, into the items at Maize. He believes that the centuries-old technique helps keep culinary traditions alive. 

It’s an inviting place with a decidedly hip atmosphere. A large U-shaped bar anchors the space with blue retro-style padded bar stools surrounding it. A mix of banquettes and chairs offers plenty of seating with a few cozy nooks for more intimate conversations. There’s also a chic lounge area where you can sip items from the drink menu, such as the Cintli, a purple-hued cocktail made with a blend of hacienda de Chihuahua sotol, purple corn-infused syrup, nixta corn liqueur and lime juice. With a large, single ball of ice and edible flowers, it was a pretty picture as well as a tasty drink.

Saldana, 35, grew up in Leon Guanajuato, Mexico, and came to the United States when he was 19. He began his restaurant career as a dishwasher, always dreaming of the day when he would open his own place. “You know, you work hard for someone else, and you always have that feeling that one day you have to be your own boss,” he told Houstonia. Helping Saldana in this new venture is Mark Cox, a former boss and mentor and now restaurant consultant. The pair previously worked together at Cox’s Mark’s American Cuisine. Also supporting the new restaurant as an adviser is Carmelo Mauro, the former owner of Carmelo’s.

All of that collective experience has helped create a restaurant that is embedded in tradition, but forward-thinking enough to surprise with its offerings, such as the appetizer Ostiones a las Brasas, grilled Gulf oysters with chile de arbol butter, onion and breadcrumbs. The taste is buttery bread crumbs mixed with slightly grilled oysters at a happy hour price of $12; the dinner version will set you back $18. There are many traditional food flavors on the menu, which includes barbacoa de res and shrimp empanadas. There’s also Pulpo Negro, a dish of octopus with black salsa negra. For the more adventurous types, there’s the restaurant’s Insectos, which includes tacos filled with items like grasshoppers, ant and moth larvae, which are more commonly eaten in Mexico. Saldana admits that it is a big risk, but customer feedback has been positive.

Three Dishes We Love at Maize:
Flautas de Peurco ($14):
The pork confit carnitas inside the fried corn tortilla cylinders are what set this dish apart from standard flautas. The pork within is creamy, and the raw salsa verde served with them is drinkable. 
Barbacoa de Res ($29): Good things come in small packages and at first glance, the barbacoa, served in an agave skin, was just that. Once opened, however, the tender, slow-roasted beef seemed to keep coming. The habanero sauce was surprisingly mild, while the pickled red onions were the opposite. They had quite a kick on their own, but gave some oomph to the barbacoa once rolled into a soft corn tortilla.
Corn Tres Leches ($10): Maize offers several desserts, including a super-rich chocolate cake, but it’s the corn sponge cake with its delicate texture and corn-infused milk that wowed us. The corn cremeaux gave it some added lushness, but the humble cake was delicious on its own.