Luis Estrada, the restaurateur behind d’maize in the Mission District, brought his health-conscious style of Salvadoran fusion cuisine to City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus in August 2016.
Five days a week, his food truck parked on campus to sell pupusas, tortas, quesadillas, breakfast burritos and beverages to 50 – 70 students daily.
On Feb. 14, d’maize opened a brick-and-mortar location in the college’s Multi-Use Building, bringing students and the neighborhood new and unique industry-standard restaurant to replace the mobile operation.
“The opportunity at City College was a miracle,” Estrada said. “Here at City College, we want to promote healthier foods because we know how hard it is at a student site to find good food, healthy food and most importantly, affordable food.”
Rather than frying chicharrones, d’maize steams and then bakes them crisp. The chicken and steak are grilled and unlike in traditional Salvadoran cooking, the fillings inside d’maize’s pupusas are baked instead of fried.
At 4 a.m. every weekday, d’maize’s small staff arrives at 2778 24th St. to prep the fresh produce that they buy from local, family-owned farms.
A portion of those ingredients are driven to City College, where items on the menu are prepared and cooked made-to-order. The new restaurant also offers lower prices than the original location to accomodate students.
“We came back to our past and thought, ‘What would we like to eat when we were students?’ And we had to be affordable,” said Zenaida Merlin, who cofounded d’maize with her husband seven years ago.
The increased kitchen space allowed them to expand their menu and include pressed paninis, a soup of the day, a full coffee bar, new smoothies and local pastries.
Several pupusa options are vegetarian, and the new restaurant makes vegetarian renditions of their burritos and quesadillas to include rice, beans, pico de gallo, eggplant, zucchini, squash, carrots, jalapeños, onions, cheese and sour cream.
Just two weeks after opening, the new shop had already become more popular than the food truck it replaced.
“It has good ingredients, it’s handmade, it’s very authentic and it’s not fast food although it’s fast,” said Tannis Reinhertz, City College’s chair of the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies department.
Reinhertz had eaten d’maize’s food at farmer’s markets years ago and recommended them to the college administration when they were looking for a new food truck.
“It’s also really nice to have, from my perspective, something that is reflective of a large population of people who go here,” she said.
The three-year lease with two one-year renewal options provides Ocean Campus its only Latin American food vendor in a half-mile radius — on a campus of more than 45,000 students that is one-fourth Latino.
It comes at a time when food options are in especially high demand by the college’s diverse community, which has seen a 13.1 percent increase in credited students in the last year largely due to the college’s free tuition for state residents.
“Our goal is to provide to Ocean Campus a little piece of the Mission District by promoting Latin culture with our food,” Estrada said.
Estrada first learned to cook in El Salvador from culinary school and his mother, who raised two children by herself while working at a restaurant in San Salvador.
“She inspired me because she was my mom — she was dad. She was taking care of us, and she worked really hard for us. Now, I’m a father. I’m a husband. I got my inspiration from her, and I like to say I learned from her,” Estrada said.
He moved to the Mission District at 21 years old and climbed San Francisco’s back-of-house restaurant ladder working as a dishwasher, janitor, barista, line cook and more at restaurants and museums.
Ten years in, he had become an executive chef at a restaurant downtown.
But when his son Matthew was born, Estrada left his job to become the father he never had.
He spent most of a year at home with Matthew and Merlin, on the side helping restaurants develop their menus and grow their businesses. It was then that Merlin suggested they start their own restaurant.
After graduating from the Mission Economic Development Agency and the non-profit kitchen incubator La Cocina together, the two opened their first shop. The first d’maize opened at the previous location of the Casa Sanchez restaurant, which the late Mayor Ed Lee named San Francisco’s 100th legacy business last year.
D’maize offered solely catering for its first four years and became a full-service restaurant three years ago. Estrada and Merlin plan on opening a third location on 19th and Mission streets as well.
d’maize, located at 11 Phelan Ave., is open Monday through Thursday 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.dmaize.com or call (415) 424-0604.
This article first appeared in the Ingleside-Excelsior Light’s April print edition.