On the Yucatan Peninsula, cochinita pibil can be found cooking beneath embers underground, slow-roasting until the meat slips off the bone. The Southern Mexican region is where Mission District resident Ruth Galvez and her family hail from, specifically a small town called Oxkutzcab, though in San Francisco she prepares the dish sans digging. But that doesn’t make her panuchos and salbutes any less powerful: she still bakes her well-spiced meats for five hours, plantain leaves wrapped tightly around them, as is tradition.
Her mom, Nalda “Guirnalda” Esther Villafania Bolio, and her secret recipe for cochinita pibil are the crux of her family’s new Mayan food business Cocina Guirnalda. That means $5 pork empanadas, chicken panuchos, and just-fried bunuelos Yucateco. But Galvez also understands the Bay Area’s interests; Cocina Guirnalda may be the only place to get Yucatecan-style tofu panuchos. Since October 2022, Galvez, her mom, and her husband have been popping up at Irving Street’s Handy Deli, catering private events, and keeping their eyes on the future — as well as their roots. “Our family is humble, and we want people to feel at home with our food,” Galvez says. “We’re Mayan.”
In 1989 Galvez’s family moved to San Jose, setting up Galvez and her five siblings in the Bay Area. They’d make and sell panuchos in the Mission District for $1, Galvez says. She says there was a population of Yucatecos who loved what her mom was whipping up. In short order, Bolio was tapped to develop recipes for Mission District restaurants. Her spice blend for pibil was, as it is now, a secret. Galvez says achiote pepper is indeed a star of the blend, but she won’t reveal anything else. “People would set up cameras to try and get her recipe,” Galvez says.
Sadly, Bolio wasn’t compensated well — or at all — for many of her contributions, Galvez says. “She never was rewarded,” Galvez says. “It was like failure after failure.” Years flew by and, in 2019, Bolio needed to return to Mexico to obtain United States citizenship — which created a natural break from cooking. She came back after two years and told Galvez she wanted to see Galvez’s older brother, who lived in Colorado. It had been five years, she said, and she wasn’t getting any younger. So, to raise a bit of extra money, they sold panuchos in the Mission like old times. “We sold 400 in one day,” Galvez says.
When they got back in late summer 2021, Galvez felt it was time to put her mom front and center in San Francisco’s Yucateco food scene. In getting the permitting and initial money together, Galvez met Jiries “Jerry” Wahba. He owns Opa Cafe on Post Street and Handy Deli on Irving Street and was interested in Galvez’s new business Cocina Guirnalda. In October 2022, they took over Wahba’s window on Irving Street and were an instant hit in the neighborhood, the scent of just-made tortillas rolling down the sidewalk. But Bolio fell into poor health not long after, which put the fledgling business on hold. Galvez is still moving things forward, though, including by applying for Berkeley’s Foodieland this August. Really, she just wants to show people why those $1 panuchos sold so quick: Yucateco culture is a delicious one. “I feel like my mom deserves that,” Galvez says.
She’d like to see her business in a permanent space someday, a place for gathering and sharing Yucateco culture. It’s not lost on Galvez the stereotypes often associated with Mexican immigrants, and she wants her business to dispel some of those negative associations. “I went to college, my husband is an engineer,” Galvez says. “People think we come here just for money. But we fought so hard to be here. We’re educated. And this is home to me.”
Cocina Guirnalada plans to return to Handy Deli in the coming months to resume its original schedule, Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. For updates, check Galvez’s Instagram.