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How an East Bay fusion taqueria grew out of a home birria project

How an East Bay fusion taqueria grew out of a home birria project

Combine birria, creativity and family, and you’ll have the key ingredients behind Tacos Don Chaí, a new taqueria in Martinez offering Mexican fare alongside fusion dishes — including birria paired with udon noodles and pizza, plus concha French toast.

It all began during the pandemic, when Bryan Gonzalez, an Antioch resident, found himself laid off from his job as a manager at Artesano, a South American restaurant in San Francisco.

Looking for a way to stay busy, he started making birria at home. After wowing his friends and family with dishes like brisket birria tacos and pineapple salsa, he decided to start selling it, albeit informally.

Bryan Gonzalez started making birria during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now he’s owner of Tacos Don Chaí, a taqueria with birria fusion dishes in Martinez. (Courtesy Najib el Ferrouj.) 

The informal sales continued for over a year, and eventually his home-cooking business became so popular that it reached the attention of the County Health Department, which promptly shut down the operation.

So Bryan pivoted, switching over to catering. While working full-time as a sales representative for a food distribution business, he spent his weekends catering, cooking from a commissary kitchen to meet the demands of ever-increasing order volumes and preparing and selling food most weekends.

“We were doing quinceañeras, birthdays, weddings, baby showers, corporate events, any kind of event that people were wanting us at,” he says.

He kept at it until the end of 2022, when his daughter was born, and he went on paternity leave. In March, the opportunity arose for Tacos Don Chaí to operate as a pop-up out of the former Gina’s Cafe space in industrial Martinez. Gonzalez jumped, initially using the kitchen for catering, while the restaurant’s owners decided whether they would stay there. When they decided to close, Gonzalez took over the lease, and now, he’s got his first brick-and-mortar location.

The restaurant’s name doesn’t have anything to do with chai tea, as Gonzalez frequently has to explain to customers. Gonzalez grew up calling his grandfather, Isaias, Abuelito Chaí, and others called him Don Chaí.

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“This business has always been very family-oriented,” he says. “This is something I want to dedicate to my grandpa.”

This summer, his nephew and brothers helped with the restaurant, but with school resuming now, Gonzalez is running the place with his dad.

Tacos Don Chaí’s signature dishes include brisket quesabirrias ($4 each), made with brisket, Monterey Jack, cilantro, onions and consommé cooked for 10 to 12 hours, and served along with a sweet and spicy pineapple salsa. Look for brisket birria ramen prepared with udon noodles and consommé broth, as well as birria pizza, which tops flatbread with birria sauce, cheese, meat, onions and cilantro.

And that concha French toast? Gonzalez was inspired by a TikTok video and set out to find the perfect concha. The quest took him through 10 Bay Area panaderías before finding his favorite: a multi-grain concha from a Bay Point panadería in Bay Point. (You can buy un-French-toasted conchas from him too.)

Gonzalez hopes to eventually add seafood and vegetarian menu items and someday expand to a larger, sit-down restaurant. Tacos Don Chai currently seats just under 30 people at counters inside and out on the patio.

Details: Open  7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at 35 Howe Road in Martinez; tacosdonchai.com.