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Guac Stars

The crew at Maya's Mexican Bistro puts on a fine show.

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There's an unspoken truth in the dining business that goes something like this: If two friends open a restaurant together, they won't be friends for long. Remember the old I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ricky Ricardo buy a little diner with their best friends Fred and Ethel Mertz? Within days, the two couples hate each other. Then they come to their senses and unload the diner, at a loss, to the original owner.

Ha, ha, ha! Alas, it's not just a sitcom plot. In the years I worked in restaurants, I was at several where the partnerships -- and friendships -- came unglued at about the same time that the places were becoming successful. In one case, accusations and lawsuits flew all over the dining room; in another, it was just china flying amid the screaming fits -- including a platter that came close to scalping me, an innocent waiter.

That's not always the case, of course. In Kansas City, there's the longtime PB&J partnership of Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury, who clearly learned a lot about teamwork when they were employed by legendary restaurateurs Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson. But it's hard to think of many other success stories -- I get too frazzled at the memory of that near-fatal platter attack.

Now four local couples -- Kelly Alvarez-Clodfelter and her husband, Rodney (the former sous chef at Piropos); Kelly's brother, Peter Alvarez; and his wife, Lisa Alvarez; longtime friends Mike and Marsha Murray; and their daughter and son-in-law, Kelly and Andy Collinsworth -- are going to succeed, they say, where the Ricardos and the Mertzes could not. Too many cooks are not spoiling the pot at their four-week-old Maya's Mexican Bistro, which may turn out to be the first restaurant in this south-side strip mall to succeed.

I don't think this location is necessarily cursed, but three previous tenants (Tucci's Italian Restaurant, Big Bubba's Bar-b-q and Donz Steakhouse) couldn't cut the mustard in the space. The team running Maya's has given the dining room an appealing makeover, but the food is the real draw. It's a savvy combination of the familiar taco-and-burrito selection and some really creative and tasty new stuff. In this case, having too many cooks is a good thing.

OK, only Peter and Lisa Alvarez and chef Rodney Clodfelter actually run the day-to-day operations. But each of the participants had a voice in pulling the place together.

"We actually all get along very well," Lisa Alvarez says. "We knew what we were going to do coming into this business, and we all have the same goal."

At my first visit to Maya's, the goal was merely to get a decent dinner, because I was starving. My friends Ned and Diane had their own agendas, which included picking the interior décor to shreds. "The lighting is ghastly," Ned said as he lifted a margarita to his lips. "And if these menus were any harder to read, they'd be printed in Esperanto. Who thought of white print on red paper? If I read one more word, I'll pass out!"

I was much less critical of the interior design, which had more in common with Pottery Barn than with any dive in Puerto Vallarta. I liked the moody lighting, the tan napkins and the black tablecloths. And I liked the looks of the attractive young servers, who slinked by in form-fitting black shirts and pants.

Diane wondered why our handsome waiter wore a wedding band on his right hand. "I think it's a secret code," she said, dipping a tortilla chip into a smoky house salsa. "But I haven't figured it out yet."

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