Co-Owner, Maya on Grace
525 E Grace Street | Richmond
Photography by Sarah Der
Game of Thrones:
How three queens of the Richmond dining scene acquired — and hold onto — their seats at the table
(an excerpt featuring maria oseguera)
By Genevelyn Steele
When Maria Oseguera opened Maya Mexican Grill and Tequila Lounge in Short Pump, she found tubs of queso dip left by the previous tenant. She replaced the canned spread with freshly melted Chihuahua cheese and refused to put Speedy Gonzales on her Mexican, Central, and South American menu. Oseguera had to overcome diners’ Tex-Mex expectations of fast-fired chimichangas and bottomless white sauce. She got complaints about her lesser known dishes and longer cook times, but stuck to plating food she respected.
Osequera started making salads in a New York trattoria at age 15. She’s never tasted a chimichanga. The Colombian-born chef learned authentic Mexican cuisine from her husband’s family, early in her career. A version of the family mole sauce has been on both Maya menus since day one.
It was ink that drove patrons to the Short Pump store. “We had a review from Dana Craig (a former restaurant reviewer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch) . She made a difference for us,” says Oseguera. “We had no idea how many people followed food writers. Customers poured in seeking authentic Mexican, with fewer complaints.”
The Osegueras opted out of their five-year lease when it came up for renewal. “We were in the back of the mall, with little foot traffic, and we felt the burn from all the places opening in Short Pump,” Maria Oseguera says. At that time, they had two restaurants, including Lucca Enoteca on Grace Street, headed by Italian-trained chef, Andrew Manning. Paying a head chef, plus his team, was an unsustainable expense. “On a good day, we were doing 20 covers,” Osequera explains. “It wasn’t enough.”
Things needed to change. Nudged by advice from Jimmy Sneed, they did. The Osegueras transformed Lucca into a second Maya before the Short Pump lease ran out. Maria took over the kitchen, this time adding more South American dishes.
Don’t let emotions squash the clarity needed to let go of an unprofitable venture. “My husband really wanted Lucca to work,” says Oseguera. “He had lots of experience running Italian restaurants in New York, but ultimately, even though it was critically regarded, Lucca didn’t bring in enough to make it.”
Find folks with restaurant experience who will listen and offer expertise. Oseguera says, “Having Mr. Sneed (of The Frog and the Redneck) to talk with once in while was great.” Those conversations gave her the courage to trust and expand on her culinary taste. Maya downtown specializes in Peruvian-style ceviche, which is fresher tasting and more sashimi-like than Mexican ceviche.
Written By: Genevelyn Steele
Illustration By: Emily Herr