Casa Ya’ax Provides an Insightful Experience Into Authentic Mexican Cuisine

Chef Omar Montero takes diners on a culinary journey through his homeland.

It can be said the name Casa Ya’ax contains the essential ethos of Chef Omar Montero’s new restaurant in Wynwood, which opened in December. The phrase is a combination of both the Spanish and Mayan languages—casa, meaning house in Spanish, and ya’ax, meaning green in Mayan. Not only does Chef Montero’s well-composed, soulful menu give an ode to both the Mexican and Mayan culinary traditions found in Montero’s home country, but the dining experience also juxtaposes the camaraderie and comforts of home with the green lushness of the jungle. The space is divided into a contemporary dining room and an exotic outdoor terrace. The menu might as well be a map, transporting diners on a journey through the different culinary regions of Mexico.

Elements of the Pacific appear in raw dishes like the Kanpachi Carpaccio (a must-try). The buttery, mildly sweet Kanpachi comes from the aquamarine waters off the rocky Baja coast of Mexico. It is “cooked” ceviche-style in a passion fruit citrus vinaigrette, with a lemongrass soy yuzu sauce, topped with creamy avocado and serrano pepper—a perfect harmony of citrus acid, spicy kick and fruity sweetness.

In the waters surrounding the Yucatán, lobster fishing is an important part of local economies. Thus, an unforgettable lobster dish appears on Casa Ya’ax’s menu. Sweet, succulent pieces of lobster balance the smokey layers of flavor in a coconut curry sauce. Served over an earthy succotash of lentils, orzo pilaf, grilled yellow corn and tomato, then garnished with a petite periwinkle edible flower, the dish is homey and undeniably delicious.

The Barbacoa de Pierna de Cordero gives a nod to central and northern Mexico. A braised lamb shank is seasoned with dried chilies and spices and served with fresh radishes, white onion shavings, cilantro and salsa roja.

“Lamb is used a lot in Guadalajara,” Chef Montero says. “I marinate it and cook it for more than 12 hours. All the condiments and marinade go deep into the meat.”

From the Western coast of Mexico, Chef Montero elected to feature the Pulpo Zarandeado—a Spanish octopus rubbed in dry red Mexican chile adobo, served with white pinto beans and Kalamata olive puree, fingerling potato confit and Spanish chorizo salsa.

“Zarandeado” is a 500-year-old method for grilling seafood, originating in Nayarit, a Mexican state on the western coast. In this tradition, seafood is grilled over hot coals in a wood-fired oven.

Masa, or corn, a staple in both Mexican and Mayan traditions, is spotted throughout Chef Montero’s menu in multiple preparations and dishes, including masa tlacoyos (thicker than a usual tortilla), a white corn hominy spread (like hummus), masa gorditas and of course, homemade corn tortillas.

Chef Montero’s intention behind featuring such a wide range of Mexican cooking techniques, regional Mexican ingredients and twists on traditional Mexican dishes was to help re-educate Miami diners on authentic Mexican cuisine.

“Everybody always thinks that Mexican gastronomy is only about tacos. They think that Mexicans eat tacos every single day,” Chef Montero laughs. “At Casa Ya’ax we offer diners a sophisticated exploration of Mexico, rich in regional flavors. We are trying to show a little bit all around Mexico, not only one region.”

This intention shines through every aspect of Casa Ya’ax, including the restaurant’s design. From the furnishings, which Chef Montero had transported in a shipping container direct from Mexico, to the building techniques he used on the walls of the salon, hails from Mexico.

“The hanging lamps and all the decorations were made within miles of Tulum,” says Chef Montero. “The furniture, which is two kinds of wood, we brought in from Mérida. In the first salon, with all the green walls, the material is Chukum.”

Chukum is an ancient Mayan technique that involves making a stucco from the leaves of the Chukum tree.

The dessert and cocktail menu likewise utilize Mexican or Mayan symbolism, ingredients and styles. For example, the whimsical Catrina desert—a white chocolate skull (called a calavera in the Day of the Dead tradition) melts open to reveal a cube of cornbread inside after a server carefully pours hot melted white chocolate over the scalp. Carmel popcorn adds a crunchy bite to this surprising dessert.

Mezcal akul, made from Mexican agave, is used in Casa Ya’ax’s Aku Mal cocktail. It is mixed with Nixta Licor de Elote (a corn liquor only grown below the Nevado de Toluca volcano in Mexico), then combined with lemongrass, pineapple and grapefruit.

The thoughtfulness of each detail Chef Montero has incorporated into the Casa Ya’ax experience speaks to his deep appreciation for his family’s heritage in Mexico. It’s no surprise he grew up in the kitchens of both his grandmothers. In the afternoons after school, Chef Montero said he would regularly find himself helping his cousins and grandmothers cook.

“I was the only boy in the family,” says Chef Montero. “At one point I was bored and was like, ‘What’s going on here in the kitchen?’ Every Sunday we had lunch and dinner at a grandma’s house. But first, we all went to the market to pick up the different ingredients for the meal. My grandma showed me how to recognize a good herb and a good protein and taste the different kinds of cheeses. She taught me how to pick a nice, fresh cream. On Saturday nights the question was always, ‘What do you want to eat tomorrow?’”

This early introduction to authentic Mexican cuisine led him to receive culinary training in Mexico City at the University Anahuac (campus of the Culinary Institute of America and The Cordon Bleu). After he graduated, he was invited by renowned Cuban-born Chef Luis Pous to interview for a position at Pous’ then-new restaurant in Little Palm Island in the Keys. Within two months, Montero emigrated to the United States.

“All my friends and family didn’t take it seriously at all,” Chef Montero laughs. “They thought I was going to Miami to party—that I’d be back in two months. I’ve never gone back.”

The move to the Keys was a big transition.

“I had been living in a big city—Mexico City—and moving to the Keys was a shock. I never was expecting to literally go to a tiki bar in Florida where everyone was wearing tropical shirts,” Chef Montero remembers. “It was a big, big change. I think I passed that adversity because I was focusing on what I wanted for me and my career.”

The move ended up being a smart one. Under the mentorship of Chef Pous, Chef Montero refined his skills and went on to work at a series of boutique hotels and restaurants in Colorado, Minnesota, San Francisco and Napa Valley, before eventually opening his first personal venture in Miami, La Santa Taqueria. La Santa Taqueria focuses on Mexican tacos and street food. Casa Ya’ax, he says, is a much deeper representation of his heart and soul.

“I hope Casa Ya’ax makes you feel warm,” he says, “Like the welcome you get at the house of your grandma.”

Casa Ya’ax is located in Wynwood at 51 NE 24 St., Suite 101. Metered street parking and valet are available. Open Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday from 6 p.m. to midnight, and Thursday through Saturday from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. For more information visit casayaax.com or follow on Instagram @casayaaxmiami.

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Drew Limsky

Drew Limsky



Drew Limsky joined Lifestyle Media Group in August 2020 as Editor-in-Chief of South Florida Business & Wealth. His first issue of SFBW, October 2020, heralded a reimagined structure, with new content categories and a slew of fresh visual themes. “As sort of a cross between Forbes and Robb Report, with a dash of GQ and Vogue,” Limsky says, “SFBW reflects South Florida’s increasingly sophisticated and dynamic business and cultural landscape.”

Limsky, an avid traveler, swimmer and film buff who holds a law degree and Ph.D. from New York University, likes to say, “I’m a doctor, but I can’t operate—except on your brand.” He wrote his dissertation on the nonfiction work of Joan Didion. Prior to that, Limsky received his B.A. in English, summa cum laude, from Emory University and earned his M.A. in literature at American University in connection with a Masters Scholar Award fellowship.

Limsky came to SFBW at the apex of a storied career in journalism and publishing that includes six previous lead editorial roles, including for some of the world’s best-known brands. He served as global editor-in-chief of Lexus magazine, founding editor-in-chief of custom lifestyle magazines for Cadillac and Holland America Line, and was the founding editor-in-chief of Modern Luxury Interiors South Florida. He also was the executive editor for B2B magazines for Acura and Honda Financial Services, and he served as travel editor for Conde Nast. Magazines under Limsky’s editorship have garnered more than 75 industry awards.

He has also written for many of the country’s top newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, USA Today, Worth, Robb Report, Afar, Time Out New York, National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Journal, Ritz-Carlton, Elite Traveler, Florida Design, Metropolis and Architectural Digest Mexico. His other clients have included Four Seasons, Acqualina Resort & Residences, Yahoo!, American Airlines, Wynn, Douglas Elliman and Corcoran. As an adjunct assistant professor, Limsky has taught journalism, film and creative writing at the City University of New York, Pace University, American University and other colleges.