This column covers the culinary genius of Chef Quinnton Austin, affectionately known as Chef Q, who is the executive chef and a partner for the Grind & Prosper Hospitality group, including Little Italy’s Coco Maya. Other venues in the group are Miss B’s Coconut Club at Mission Beach, North Park’s Louisiana Purchase, Carlsbad’s Park 101, and two Oceanside venues, Q & A Restaurant & Oyster Bar and rooftop cocktail bar Coco Cabana on top of Q & A.
Chef Q, originally from New Orleans, embarked on his culinary journey at age 17, initially as a dishwasher and dough roller. He was influenced by his father and the cooking of his father’s family cooking, with its rich blend of Creole, Haitian and Caribbean cuisine.
Chef Q delayed his formal culinary education during Hurricane Katrina, prioritizing aiding displaced individuals over attending college. Post-Katrina, he attended the Culinary Institute of New Orleans. After that, he gained diverse culinary experience, cooking at stands, pop-ups and food trucks.
Guided by mentor Chef Charlie, who advised, “Don’t let yourself be labeled as one thing,” Chef Q discovered the executive chef role at Grind & Prosper in California on Craigslist, an opportunity to bring his Cajun expertise westward and expand his culinary brand.
What I appreciated the most about Chef Q is how he melded his Cajun culinary roots at Coco Maya in Little Italy, paying homage to a district dominated by Italian cuisine.
We started dinner with Jerk Chicken Gnocchi. Chef Q infused brown garlic butter and jerk paste with asiago-stuffed gnocchi to create a sweet and spicy twist on a traditional Italian dish that was divine. He also honors the southern border with ceviche, lobster tacos, short rib birria (street) tacos and Maya TKO tacos that were 2022 San Diego Wine and Food Festival People’s Choice TKO winner as part of Coco Maya’s menu.
In addition to the gnocchi, we also started with short rib tacos. Taz, one of the servers, suggested the Marquesitas Espresso Martini. This was a decadent choice with cold brew-infused rum, coffee liqueur, salted caramel mascarpone foam and Stroopwafel crumble — and was as grand as it sounds.
We completed our starters with the Maine lobster flatbread. This was another tribute to Little Italy where Chef Q has a 5-ounce Maine lobster tail atop freshly imported Italian flatbread with béchamel truffle sauce, sliced Roma tomatoes, garlic butter and fresh basil. This was just as striking as the jerk chicken gnocchi.
For our mains, Chef Q indulged us with the 12-ounce Wagyu strip and 16-ounce Prime Ribeye entrees using Spanish charcoal oven cooking. We paired these with Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon from Valle de Guadalupe, one of Baja California’s premium wineries.
The Wagyu was plated with a sweet potato honoring Chef Q’s Caribbean influence and was topped with a habanero mango butter. The Prime Ribeye benefited from marbling, was chile-rubbed and topped with garlic butter. Each was perfectly cooked medium rare and continued to showcase the melting pot of flavors that Chef Q created for Coco Maya’s menu.
We concluded dinner with the Marquesitas dessert, a crepe-style thin waffle filled with Nutella, cherry jam, edam cheese and blackberries. Being a Nutella fanatic, I thought this was an exceptional dessert.
Besides Chef Q’s dinner menu, there were many other things to love about Coco Maya. The dining area is beautiful with soft, glowing neon lights, there are multiple seating options including tables that are secluded, tables with a lively atmosphere, outside dining overlooking Little Italy and bar seats.
Beyond dinner, Coco Maya extends its culinary offerings with a brunch menu available until 3 p.m., featuring chilaquiles and bokits, traditional Guadalupian pan-fried bread sandwiches, and other favorites. A Midday Affair menu runs until 5 p.m., and a weekday happy hour menu includes snacks, premium liquid cocktails, beer and wine options.
General manager/partner Natasha Prickett, floor manager Lindsey and server Taz along with Chef Q treated us like royalty. With a kaleidoscope of Cajun fusion melded into Italian and Mexican entrees, I highly recommend Coco Maya or any of the Grind & Prosper venues under Chef Q’s leadership.
— Story by Rico Cassoni
Rico Cassoni is executive producer for Taste of Wine and Food. He and founder/advisor Frank Mangio, a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator, are two of the leading reviewers on the web. Reach them at [email protected].