The cafe incubator at the red-tiled Plaza Adelante building on 19th and Mission streets has a new tenant — and he is a very busy man.
Jesus Witzil, the owner of the new El Corazón Cafe, headed to his community kitchen before sunrise on a recent morning, prepping aiolis and roasting meats. He was running on four hours’ sleep: Witzil also works nights as a sous chef at the arcade bar Detour SF on Market Street near 15th Street, plating “Pan-Pacific” fusion food for a bustling young crowd among the pinball machines and neon lights.
“Over there, it’s crazy. Last night, we made over 300 covers,” Witzil said, referring to the number of customers served. After the early-morning kitchen prep is complete, he heads to his stall and opens his cafe.
When he is not presiding over Cuban lattes or tossing a ponzu salad, the 48-year-old Witzil, who was born in Mexico and first moved to the Mission more than 30 years ago, also runs a janitorial business with his wife, Yessenia, providing cleaning services for different eateries.
“She’s a really good cook,” Witzil says of his Honduran wife. But for now, Witzil has opted to use flavors and dishes from across the Americas.
The menu at El Corazón Cafe includes enchiladas, roast chicken, pasta and waffles. Witzil’s team gets Latin-American pastries and bread from nearby El Yucateco Bakery, and serves coffee from Mr. Espresso. He heads to the Ferry Building farmer’s market to pick up produce when he can.
“It’s our creations, and we try to make it as authentic [as] we can,” Witzil said, sitting in the ground-floor space with its colorful decor and views of bustling Mission Street, the afternoon sun filtering through large windows. Since the stand at Plaza Adelante is small, they do much of their cooking at a community kitchen space in Daly City.
“It’s my passion. I love cooking, I love to learn new things,” he says. “Basically, I love cooking.”
For 20 years he has nurtured that love, arriving in the Mission District at 15 from Isla Mujeres, a small island off Cancun, and starting at the bottom of the industry as a dishwasher. He rose through ranks to sous chef, working at downtown hotels like the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, and now at Detour SF. With El Corazón Cafe, he is realizing a decades-old dream of owning his own place.
The menu, though varied, is short and not overwhelming, and will have rotating specials in addition to American classics. Witzil said he wants to focus on “the best dishes, or, at least, whatever I really like” — from Latin American cuisine to his simple pleasures, like mozzarella-avocado toast.
Like others at Plaza Adelante, he is a participant in the kitchen incubator program from the Mission Economic Development Agency, which owns the building at 2301 Mission St., and will give Witzil and his business partner discounted rent for three years on his space there — the same deal other businesses on the ground floor receive.
“They give you so much advice. They give you so much help, as much as they can,” he said. Most recently, they advised him to open earlier in the morning to catch the morning rush of coffee drinkers en route to work.
El Corazón is just the beginning for Witzil; he still hopes to open a full restaurant of his own one day.
Though Witzil will still focus on Latin American foods when he gets his own space, he also hopes to bring out another cuisine he’s perfected through his years in the kitchen: Italian food, which he has come to love through his two decades in restaurants.
Witzil calls Italian his “specialty,” and his favorite dish is gnocchi, which he has learned to make from scratch.
“Gnocchi is the best,” he said. “We’re going to try to make a fusion Latin-Italian, not here, but eventually.” That, he said, is his biggest goal.
“Since when I got here, I always knew what my dream is,” Witzil said. “And [this is] a really good start.”
El Corazón Cafe, located at 2301 Mission St., is open Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.