Oaxacan’s new restaurant, Donaji, debuts in mission with masa-focused menu
After years of serving tamalitos at San Francisco farmer’s markets, chef Isai Cuevas has finally opened the doors to his first traditional restaurant, Donaji. Named in honor of the legendary Zapotec Princess, the restaurant serves a menu of tamales, tacos, sopes and enchiladas, all aimed at showcasing the diversity and delicacy of a key ingredient: “The whole menu is based on of corn, of masa, and the different ways of using masa, ”explains Cuevas. Located at 3161 24th Street in the former Foxsister space, the restaurant is currently open for breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Sunday, although Cuevas says he plans to expand with dinner service in November. Cuevas, who runs the business with his wife Alison Cook, will also continue to sell tamales at farmers’ markets, including the CUESA Mission Community Market on Thursdays and Outdoor Sunset on Sundays.
Cuevas, who was born in Zimatlan, a town southwest of Oaxaca, came to the United States at age 18 and has worked at restaurants in San Francisco, including Epic Steakhouse and Liverpool Lil, for more than five years. After serving as a private chef, he started the tamale business as a side business in 2018. But as catering and private chef activities dwindled during the pandemic, Cuevas and Cook realized that ‘They should either fire all their employees or take a step back so that the staff can continue working. They chose the latter, deciding to return to Mexico for about six months so that Cuevas could “reconnect with family, food and corn,” he says.
The result is a restaurant the chef describes as offering “Oaxacan inspired recipes with a little California twist”. He’s especially excited about his mole enchiladas, which he makes from a recipe he learned from his aunt, whose mole is the subject of local legend, he says. “I know there are a lot of versions [of mole] in the world – 100 people have 100 different mole recipes, ”he says. “But in Oaxaca we use a lot of spices.” Back home, Cuevas says it takes two days to make the subtle sauce, starting with a day of toasting spices over the comal and frying plantains to give it some sweetness. On the second day, we grind everything – pasilla peppers, dried peppers, chocolate, almonds and spices – in a stone molino until it reaches a smooth consistency.
The process is simplified slightly at the restaurant, but Cuevas has brought back a stone molino from Mexico and plans to start in-house nixtamalization soon. Fresh masa forms the basis of almost everything on the menu, from the handmade tortillas used in huevos rancheros to fried sopes. He uses his mother’s recipe for his pozole and serves Oaxacan-style taquitos, which means you’ll get the deep-fried tubes wrapped in lettuce. You can also buy a 12-pack of tortillas or a bag of crisps.
So far, Cuevas says business has been stable and despite the pandemic that has thrown him and Cook into a curveball, he’s happy things seem to have worked out as they were meant to, including finding Donaji space thanks. to a friend. “Yeah, I really thought it was meant to be,” he said. “So we took a chance and we went into the restaurant. ”
Donaji is located at 3161 24th Street and open from Wednesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with online ordering available in the restaurant website.