For authentic Mayan Mexican cooking, Valley and Brattleboro residents need look no further than Three Stones restaurant in Brattleboro. The fresh homemade corn tortillas, moist meats and beans and fresh salsas are truly extraordinary, while a Mayan twist (including the use of pumpkin seeds and smoked chile peppers) makes this cuisine unique. But it’s the family story that gives this tiny 24- seat restaurant its unmistakable character.
I sat down with co-owner Mucuy Bolles on a recent evening amidst the soft music and amazing smells that wafted through the dining room. After spending the day cooking and preparing the restaurant’s food with husband and co-owner Christian Makay, she had changed into a traditional Mexican skirt and colorfully embroidered shirt. She acts as hostess as she glides around the small floor space, seeming right at home in the restaurant business. But this is by no means her first demonstrated talent.
“We read How to Start a Small Restaurant, but I don’t know how we figured it out, to be honest!” she laughs when asked how she came to run the now-popular business. Her hair was tightly pulled back into a bun, and her wide eyes accentuated her words with dramatic flair. “We just tackled it obstacle by obstacle.”
Raised by her Mayan Mexican mother and American archaeologist father, Bolles spent her childhood in her mother’s village in the Yucatan peninsula and on a working farm in New Hampshire. Her mother taught her how to cook on the three stones that surround the traditional cooking fires, and passed on the passion for cooking that many Mayan Mexican women possess.
“They’re cooking with fire and earth and stones and sticks and that’s it,” Bolles explains. She remembers the way her mother would teach. “She says, ‘I know you know how to do three stones,’” Bolles says in her mother’s accent. “But she say, ‘Now I show you with no stones. None!’”
Today that knowledge is coming in very handy, but Bolles steered away from cooking for many years. She enjoyed a successful 21-year performance career as a professional dancer, touring with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Feld Ballet, and several Broadway shows, including T he Ki ng and I and Disney’s The Lion King.
It was only in the last 10 or so years that she and Makay, who had worked as head carpenter and props manager for a multitude of Broadway shows, began thinking of their next career move. Unlike Bolles, Makay had always wanted to own a restaurant.
“When he met my mother and started eating her food, he just couldn’t believe it. He’d never had Mexican food like that. He thought it would make an amazing, amazing restaurant. Plus the handmade tortilla is something we’ve always wanted to do because nobody makes handmade tortillas anymore,” Bolles says.
The couple decided to move to Vermont and, after months of searching, chose Brattleboro. “It just seemed like a nice mix of down-to-earth but yet educated, artistic. The vibe was right,” Bolles remembers.
The burst of flavor and incredible textures that is Bolles’—and by extension, her mother’s—cooking is the result of generations of Mayan families working to perfect the art of creating something from nothing.
“We offer a Yucatec Mayan cuisine. In that region, they have a very limited amount of ingredients, so they have to be creative,” Bolles explains. The act of cooking is a form of expression. “In the Mayan language, there’s so many different words for types of cooking—one is to roast, one is to cook underneath the earth, one is to steam, one is to beat while it’s cooking. Method is everything.”
Bolles’ mother spent much of her adult life figuring out how to recreate the meals she’d learned to produce in Mexico with the cooking equipment used in the U.S., like ovens and gas grills. One taste of Three Stones’ juicy pork on a salbute (fried tortilla) or the nutty Onzicil tortilla (made from pumpkin seeds) with its creamy tomato-pumpkin seed salsa attests to her success.
Bolles’ mother had the chance to see her hard work shared with the public. She opened Three Stones with the couple in 2010; last fall, she passed away. Her legacy of recipes and techniques is now in the capable hands of Bolles and Makay.
“I think actually the best part (of owning a restaurant) was seeing my mom so appreciated,” Bolles smiles. “You know, to see all these people looking at her with stars in their eyes and appreciating where she came from and how far she’s traveled to get to that part in her life—that was the best.”
The mother’s recipes and artwork fill the restaurant with a homey, family feeling that Bolles and Makay offer each night to the public. “Yeah, this whole place is just a shrine to her,” Bolles says happily. Venture to Three Stones to taste the family recipes and share in their story.•
If you’re traveling from afar, confirm their hours and make a reservation by calling ahead: 802-246-1035. http://www.3stonesrestaurant.com