On a recent afternoon, Luis Vazquez walked into Brooklyn Pizza in the Tenderloin. Before he got to the counter, he stopped, pointed his index finger at the kitchen and said, “It smells like panuchitos” – a traditional Mayan dish that’s part of a secret menu only a few people know about.
A waitress handed Vazquez a copy of the menu; instead of the pizzas that appeared on a prominent blackboard on the wall, it listed Mayan dishes such as cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork served in a bean-filled tortilla, and relleno negro, a turkey stew made with black chili paste.
“She saw my Yuca face,” said Vazquez, 44, a native of Yucatan, Mexico, who operates his own Mayan food truck in San Francisco, called Chaac Mool. Chaac Mool will offer Mayan dishes at Off the Grid, a gathering of food trucks at Fort Mason, after it opens for the season on March 22.
At Brooklyn Pizza, the dishes have been served and Vazquez begins his lesson.
“This one is pre-Hispanic,” he said, looking at the pibes, a maize torte stuffed with chicken and a maize sauce. Then he pointed to the cochinita pibil. “This one is after the Spanish came. It is said that they introduced pork to Mexico.”
This is Vazquez in his element — a walking encyclopedia of Mexican cuisine, a promoter of Yucatecan culture, a fifth-generation baker and a tireless entrepreneur raising a family of six.
He is one of the thousands of immigrants in San Francisco from Oxkutzcab, a Mexican municipality with deep Mayan roots. The Yucateco population in San Francisco has grown from about 5,000 in the early 2000s to almost 20,000 today, according to members of the immigrant community. Like Vazquez, many Yucatecos came to the Bay Area in the late ’90s, after the devaluation of the peso caused an economic crisis.
“It’s not San Francisco, it is San Oxkutzcab,” Vazquez said.
Before immigrating, many in the community worked at resorts in Cancun, where they picked up valuable skills that would translate to jobs in San Francisco. While working as a chef in Cancun, Vazquez perfected his cochinita pibil, which is now Chaac Mool’s signature offering.
“They knew how to cook Japanese, Italian before they even got here, so it was easier to gets jobs in restaurants,” said Alberto Perez of Asociacion Mayab, an organization that serves San Francisco’s Mayan population. “The restaurant industry in San Francisco is a big deal — it’s a perfect match. They come knowing how to cook, or at least [they’re] not afraid to jump into the kitchen.”
Vazquez has never been afraid to jump into the kitchen. He cooked meals for his employees at his now-defunct pizzeria in Cancun. “It was cheaper,” he said.
Vazquez’s first job after arriving in San Francisco in 1999 was at Panaderia La Mexicana on 24th Street. Over the years he worked at four different restaurants in the city, at times simultaneously. He once opened his own café in Oakland, but closed it after couple of years because it didn’t build name recognition fast enough, the cooking space was small and he was distracted by his concurrent job at Rose’s Café.
In 2010 Vazquez got a fresh start through La Cocina, a food business incubator in the Mission District that helps low-income entrepreneurs. He found himself at home at La Cocina, and has taught a bread-making class for Dia de los Muertos there for three years in a row. He also collaborated with Leo Beckerman of Wise Sons Deli, helping him perfect the bread for the popular Mission District spot.
Vazquez’s biggest culinary influence, he says, was his grandmother, who raised him and his siblings. His family was poor and could afford meat only on the weekends, but his grandmother always managed to make a different dish each day.
She once cooked a vegetarian meal called papatzul that was traditionally eaten by the Mayan elite.
“It’s as if we were eating like Mayan kings,” Vazquez remembered. “That dish was enriched by the story more than the taste.”