After years of serving tamalitos at farmers markets across San Francisco, chef Isai Cuevas has finally opened the doors to his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Donaji. Named for the legendary Zapotec princess, the restaurant serves a menu of tamales, tacos, sopes, and enchiladas — all of which is meant to showcase the diversity and deliciousness of one key ingredient: “The whole menu is based on corn, on masa, and the different ways to use masa,” Cuevas says. Located at 3161 24th Street in the former Foxsister space, the restaurant is currently open for breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Sunday, though 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 CUESA Mission Community Market on Thursdays and Outer Sunset on Sundays.
Cuevas, who was born in Zimatlan, a city in the southwestern part of Oaxaca, came to the United States at 18 and has been working at restaurants in San Francisco including Epic Steakhouse and Liverpool Lil for more than half a decade. After taking on a job as a private chef, he launched the tamale business as a side hustle in 2018. But as catering and private chef business dried up during the pandemic, Cuevas and Cook realized they’d either have to layoff all their employees or step back themselves so the staff could keep working. They chose the latter, deciding to travel back to Mexico for about six months so Cuevas could “reconnect with family and the food and the corn,” he says.
The result is a restaurant the chef describes as offering “Oaxacan-inspired recipes with a little California twist.” He’s particularly excited about his enchiladas de mole, which he’s making based on a recipe he learned from his aunt, whose mole is the stuff of local legend, he says. “I know there are a lot of versions [of mole] in the world — 100 people have 100 different recipes of mole,” he says. “But in Oaxaca we use a lot of spices.” Back home, Cuevas says it’s a two-day affair to make the subtle sauce, starting with one day of toasting spices on the comal and frying up plantains to give it some sweetness. The second day goes toward grinding it all up — pasilla peppers, dried chiles, chocolate, almonds, and spices — in a stone molino until it reaches a smooth consistency.
The process is slightly streamlined at the restaurant, but Cuevas did bring back a stone molino from Mexico and plans to begin doing in-house nixtamalization soon. Fresh masa makes up the base for pretty much everything on the menu, from the handmade tortillas used in the huevos rancheros to the fried sopes. He’s using his mom’s recipe for his pozole and serving taquitos the Oaxacan way, which means you’ll get the fried tubes wrapped in lettuce. You’re also able to pick up a 12 pack of tortillas or a bag of chips.
So far Cuevas says business has been steady and despite the pandemic having thrown he and Cook a curveball, he’s glad things seem to have worked out the way they were meant to, including finding the Donaji space through a friend. “Yeah, I really thought it was meant to be,” he says. “So we took a chance and we’re going all in with the restaurant.”
Donaji is located at 3161 24th Street and open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with online ordering available on the restaurant website.