MT. DESERT ISLAND, Maine — It’s a little-known fact that even a tourist in Maine can’t eat lobster every day, even when its drop-dead cheap like right now. The proof is in the packed dining room of a Mexican cantina nestled among pine trees on the so-called quiet side of Mt. Desert Island. On a July night diners in blue button-down shirts with fresh sunburns dig into moles, chiles rellenos, and piles of citrusy shredded pork. They toast each other with zesty, salt-rimmed margaritas over shiny oil cloths covered with flashy blooms.
XYZ in little old Manset isn’t exactly a secret but it is far off the island’s many beaten paths physically and psychologically. The simple, small sign posted along Route 102A, just south of Southwest Harbor, is easy to speed past. Add to that, no one expects authentic Mexican food this far north of the border, especially not among birch forests and obliterating fogs. It can take some convincing to get first-timers to come along. They will find that it’s highly satisfying to find a spot so hidden, so unexpected, on such an overrun island.
The snappy name stands for Xalapa, Yucatan, and Zacatecas, the three Mexican regions from where most of the dishes on the menu hail. Janet Strong and Bob Hoyt collected the recipes over the past 25 years as they skipped Maine winters to crisscross Mexico, visiting the silver towns of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi or hanging out in coffee country in Xalapa.
Though many visitors to the island dream of living here, it takes some ingenuity to do so. Like many MDI residents, Hoyt and Strong had to drum up a way to make a living, so with little restaurant experience between them, they opened XYZ in 1994 smack on the Manset town harbor. When the rent doubled, they gave up the view, and decamped for a wooded lot a half-mile up the road, where they built a long white building that resembles a Mexican ranch house, complete with a burro, albeit a fiberglass one.
When they opened in August 2004, they had only a handful of tables. A few of the chairs were even child-size. Still people came. Eight years later, they have settled in like a family does in a house, filling the room with souvenirs from their travels, zany, bold posters, ceramic tchotchkes, and a grand bull’s horn over the bar.
Strong runs the front of the house and does all the baking, including the exquisite pastel tres leche. She has the voice and dry sense of humor worthy of a ’30s film star. Think Barbara Stanwyck. In the kitchen, “There’s only Roberto,” Strong says about Hoyt. “We don’t have a wonderful staff of Mexicans, like most people assume.”
Hoyt did break down some years back and hire someone to help him plate the food. He pulled off his one-man cooking show because this is true slow food. Most everything is simmered or baked for hours, such as the mammoth short ribs that spend five hours in the oven.
He is mostly a self-taught cook, who acquired his kitchen chops from his many travels. The result is a menu of authentic dishes, such as the moist, earthy cochinita pibil, a traditional Yucatan dish. The pork is rubbed with achiote paste, marinated in citrus, and then baked until it falls apart. A bright dish of tiger shrimp sauteed with garlic and the mild, yet complex, guajillo chilies comes from Veracruz. Chiles rellenos con queso are made with dried ancho chilies that have been rehydrated, a common way for them to be made in Mexico when fresh aren’t available.
One of the restaurant’s most authentic touches is the one that throws most people. The meal starts with two salsas, one of fresh jalapenos, the other, much hotter, of dried jalapenos, and a basket of bread. Most people assume it’s a Yankee touch, but it’s the real deal. In Mexico, meals start with bread, not chips.
XYZ is a good example of why when traveling you sometimes need to eat in contrast to a place, say, have Vietnamese food in Paris. By going astray, you might discover something new about a locale or gain a deeper understanding of it. With its fiesta atmosphere and zippy flavors, so different from Maine’s staid colors and often bland flavors, XYZ reminds you of the great joie de vivre of this island, of how outright fun it is to be in such a magical place as Mt. Desert. That’s worth raising a margarita to.
XYZ, End of Bennett Lane, off Route 102A, Manset, Maine, 207-244-5221.Amy Sutherland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.