When the maker of the East Bay’s finest gorditas closed the doors of her restaurant, Mi Zacatecas, almost exactly one year ago, the original plan was for chef-owner Cecilia Chairez to reopen at a new East Oakland location in March. The fact that the move wound up being snarled by months of permitting and construction delays was a matter of divine providence, Chairez believes.
“I wasn’t paying rent at the new spot where I was going to move,” she says. “Thank God I was closed.”
Now, the East Bay’s only restaurant specializing in Zacatecan cuisine is finally ready to start serving its slow-cooked stews and freshly griddled gorditas once again: The restaurant has passed its final health inspection, and, once Chairez wraps up the final pieces of paperwork, Mi Zacatecas should be ready to open for takeout at its new location at 6633 Bancroft Avenue within the next two weeks — by the last week of December or the start of January at the very latest, Chairez says.
When Mi Zacatecas does reopen, it’ll mark the return of one of the Bay Area’s finest, and most singular, Mexican restaurants. As Eater SF first reported in 2019, there are few — if any — other Mexican restaurants in the Bay Area that claim explicit ties to Mexico’s north-central state of Zacatecas, which means the dishes that Chairez cooks can’t be found anywhere else: her particular Zacatecas-style preparation of pork skin braised in red salsa, the pork and nopales stew that is unique to the chef’s hometown of Valparaiso, and, most prominently, the freshly griddled gorditas that stand apart from the deep-fried versions sold at most Mexican restaurants around town.
Those dishes — plus Chairez’s gigantic handmade corn tortillas — made Mi Zacatecas a cult favorite among Mexican food enthusiasts in the East Bay, despite the restaurant’s location in a remote, sparsely populated stretch of Deep East Oakland. When the pandemic started, however, Chairez was forced to shift gears entirely, leaning on her skills as a seamstress to sew face masks — a side hustle that wound up becoming successful enough that it kept her busy for the entirety of the spring and summer.
Now that Mi Zacatecas’s new location on Bancroft Avenue is finally ready to open, Chairez is hopeful that, despite the challenges of the pandemic, she’ll be able to reach an even larger audience for her food. According to Chairez, the new spot is located in much more of an established neighborhood with more foot traffic — it’s a couple of blocks away from a high school and not far from Mills College. There’s a cozy patio in the back where the restaurant will be able to seat about 10 socially distanced diners once outdoor dining is allowed. Inside, there’s an open kitchen, separated by a plexiglass partition, so that eventually, customers will be able to watch Chairez and her cooks making the gorditas and tortillas by hand.
That said, Chairez acknowledges that there’s plenty of uncertainty around how much business there will be, given the restaurant’s yearlong absence and the area’s recent spike in coronavirus cases. So, Chairez is putting some of the ambitious plans for the new location on hold, including the launch of breakfast service, a “meal of the day,” and a casual cenaduría (informal supper club) menu in the evenings. For now, she’ll start by serving her old menu — including menudo and barbacoa on the weekends — for takeout.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t exciting things on the horizon. Those menu additions will come later, Chairez promises. And, now that she’s found a supplier for fresh milk, all she needs to do is procure a metate, or grindstone, in order to start producing her own cheese for the restaurant — one of the hallmarks of Zacatecan cuisine and a nod to Chairez’s own mother, who is a cheesemaker in Valparaiso. In the meantime, she’s raising money to pay for equipment upgrades and the creation of a new website for the restaurant.
“Many people are struggling with money and their jobs right now,” Chairez says. But she’s hopeful that her restaurant will help meet the East Oakland community’s needs: “It’s good food, but it’s not crazy expensive.”