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This Mar Vista Mother and Son Are Fighting Gentrification With Their Own Blue Corn Nixtamal

The Diaz family is exactly who blue corn was meant to help out. For thousands of years, the people of the sun survived and thrived off corn. Today in Mar Vista, it's still coming through for them. 

8:46 AM PDT on August 23, 2023

    Freshly nixtamalized tacos and tortillas at Saby’s. Photo by Memo Torres for L.A. TACO.

    Fresh handmade tortillas have the power to summon crowds of taco devotees, cradle the most humble of mom-and-pop shops, and burnish a restaurant's reputation with Michelin's respect.

    It's been proven that a finely tuned nixtamalization process to produce those tortillas can win you awards and acclaim in Los Angeles. But can a modest blue corn nixtamal program at a little corner cafe be enough to keep a mother and son living in their lifelong neighborhood?

    Saby's Cafe: Photo By Memo Torres
    Owners Graciela Diaz and her son, Javier Diaz: Photo by Memo Torres

    When Sabina Aguilar, then owner of Saby's Cafe, approached Graciela Diaz in February 2020 to take over her Oaxacan kitchen on the corner of Beethoven Street and Venice Boulevard, Aguilar offered only two days for a decision. Javier Diaz, Graciela's son, had just graduated from Venice High School (which shares the same block as Saby's Cafe) in 2019, and saw it as a do-or-die situation.

    Could they take over a restaurant in the same neighborhood they could no longer afford to live in? Or should they settle in Mid-City and let mom continue to work in other people's professional kitchens?

    The Diazes had just been pushed out of the Venice/Mar Vista neighborhood in 2017 by rising rents, leaving a neighborhood Javier had called home since he was four years old, the age at which Graciela had moved him from Mexico City.

    "I know more about this area than I do about Mexico City," Javier tells us half-jokingly. "It's changing so much and so fast."

    With only $132 between them and unaware of the looming pandemic waiting one month away, they decided to take the leap and bet it all on blue. Aguilar agreed to a payment plan, and they immediately got to work.

    They brought in their friend, Doña Aurelia, who taught them how to nixtamalize blue corn. Today Aurelia oversees one of the Westside's rarest in-house nixtamalization programs for blue corn tortillas.

    Doña Aurelia holds up a freshly pressed tortilla: Photo by Memo Torres
    Blue corn nixtamal at Saby's Cafe: Photo by Javier Díaz
    Graciela Díaz holding up a freshly pressed large blue corn tortilla for a quesadilla: Photo by Memo Torres

    This blue corn, sourced locally in downtown Los Angeles, is the basis for most of their menu items. The tortillas are there to accompany saucy plates of chile rellenos or costillitas. The malleable masa can also be pressed into classic machete-sized quesadillas stuffed with indigenous ingredients like flor de calabasa or huitlacoche. 

    At its core, Saby's menu is Mexican. The flavors are there while sometimes delivered in more overtly recognizable vessels, adapted for the restaurant's newer and whiter neighborhood customer base. You'll notice this in their bounty of burly breakfast burritos that come bolstered with chipotle, quesillo, rajas, and machaca. They also offer the original breakfast burrito with just eggs, cheese, and potatoes. For the plain Janes.

    Blue corn quesadilla with flor de calabasa: Photo by Memo Torres
    Saby's Chipotle Breakfast Burrito: Photo by Memo Torres
    Torta de Chilaquiles: Photo by Memo Torres

    Chilaquiles can be chilango-fied, ordered Mexico City-style in a torta with an egg and milanesa de pollo [pounded, fried chicken]. The French toast is made of concha bread and topped with fresh fruit and dulce de leche; it's a plush dish that anyone with a sweet tooth will enjoy. Wash it all down with the aromas of a perfect cinnamon-filled cafe de olla in a clay Talavera cup. 

    It's a vibrant menu that honors the family's Mexico City roots and the restaurant and staff's Oaxacan origins. Tlayudas and moles are also on the menu with ingredients sourced directly from Mexico, but Javier admits that some of these items don't do as well because the bulk of their "Caucasian clientele," as he puts it, doesn't really understand it. Nevertheless, Saby keeps it on the menu because, quite frankly, they're delicious.

    Huevos Rancheros: Photo By Memo Torres

    And while the majority of these menu items could be individual showstoppers, the most unique bites might be those most familiar to all: tacos served on those earthy blue corn tortillas. 

    In particular, the crispy fish tacos stand out. The fried tilapia in a crispy seasoned batter with Baja-esque cabbage and a small chipotle mayo spread is a favorite and frequent seller. 

    The Venice Taco is an ode to Javier's alma mater. It is a California burrito on a blue corn tortilla. Saucy and creamy, with guacamole, fries, and top sirloin. All the fixings a hungry teenager needs. 

    Fish Taco: Photo by Memo Torres
    Carnitas taco and a basket with fresh blue corn tortillas: Photo by Memo Torres
    Breakfast Tacos: Photo By Memo Torres

    The shrimp and crispy carnitas are crowd-pleasers, but their breakfast tacos might be the biggest winners. A fat, over-medium egg served with Oaxacan chorizo from Mario's Carnecería next door, a bit of black beans, avocado, tomato, onions, and cheese. Put these in the running for best breakfast tacos on a blue corn tortilla. 

    The blue corn has become such a hit that there are times when it sells out, and customers have to settle for nixtamalized yellow corn. For the Díazes, the blue corn may represent their Mexico City roots, where they are common for tlacoyos and quesadillas, but they also hoped that it would be as visually captivating as it is indulging. They use the blue corn as a beacon for the curious, made from scratch and served fresh to give customers an optimal experience. 

    A blue corn tortilla from Saby's Cafe: Photo by Memo Torres

    The Diaz duo leaned on their roots and adapted to neighborhood trends to find success. Saby's Mexican flavor and soul are rooted in the unity of a mother, son, and Oaxacan community partnership. There are many lessons to be learned here, but at the end of the day, if it wasn't for a local friend giving another local an opportunity, this cafe could have turned into another overpriced avocado toast-serving cafe.

    The Diaz family is exactly who blue corn was meant to help out. In the hands of any other, some could cry appropriation. But for thousands of years, the people of the sun survived and thrived off corn, and today in Mar Vista, it's still coming through for them. 

    Three years after taking a chance, through a global pandemic, Graciela and Javier paid off their business. Graciela went from working in different kitchens to owning her first one, a kitchen where she was once an employee in the neighborhood where she raised her son, now her business partner.

    Saby's Cafe ~ 12900 Venice Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90066

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