Photo by Ruta Smith Raul Sanchez at home in his newly remodeled kitchen

At home with Raul Sanchez

Maya del Sol Kitchen owner Raul Sanchez’s parents didn’t want him to be a chef. 

But after spending five minutes with Sanchez in his West Ashley home, it’s clear he’s found his calling. In fact, it’s painfully obvious as shown in his newly renovated kitchen and a lush backyard garden that soon will be filled with hot peppers that will make their way into bottles of hot sauce.

“I was born and raised in Chicago — Mexican parents, both were chefs — so I’ve been in the food world ever since I can remember,” Sanchez said. “My parents didn’t want us to get into the food world obviously, but I’m the only one from eight who did.” 

Sanchez, the oldest of his siblings, recently opened Maya del Sol Kitchen, his third local venture since he arrived in Charleston in 2011. The Reynolds Avenue restaurant, open for dinner Thursday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday, defines the country-style Mexican cuisine that Sanchez cooked with his mother and grandmother during his childhood. The experienced chef wasn’t always drawn to the culinary field, but a chance encounter with a friend led him down the path he’s happy he traveled. 

“I happened to have a friend who owned a temp agency, and one of her biggest clients was Dean Foods,” said Sanchez, recalling the days before he accepted a temporary job at one of the largest milk, butter and ice cream processors in the country. 

The three-month assignment as a data analyst in 1995 turned into a full-time corporate chef position after Dean Foods learned of Sanchez’s lineage. The main perk of the job, Sanchez said, was the company’s willingness to pay for his culinary training. 

Sanchez’s grandmother brought him to South Carolina 

As is the case with many chefs, Sanchez’s journey to opening his first restaurant took him out of the culinary field for seven years. But when the time came to leave the Midwest, he had some help deciding where to land. 

“My grandma had been in South Carolina for 30-plus years. We would visit her once a year,” said Sanchez, recalling discussions with his grandmother before he moved to the South. “My grandma says to me, ‘You said if you ever left Illinois you would give Charleston a try,’ so I ended up here by guilt.” 

Sanchez initially planned to open an Italian restaurant called Raul’s Tuscan Flair, but his disappointment in Charleston’s Mexican cuisine led him to open Raul’s Taqueria and Mexican Grill in 2011 at the intersection of Rivers Avenue and Remount Road in North Charleston. He moved to a new Park Circle digs a year later before closing up shop in 2016 — but Sanchez wasn’t finished sharing his Mexican cuisine with Charleston.

Photo by Ruta Smith
Sanchez’s kitchen offers comfortable prep space with iconic art on the walls.

Chef cooks Italian, Mexican dishes at home

Several parallels exist between the Mexican food Sanchez grew up eating and the plates he found on an extended trip to Tuscany, the chef said. 

“Traditional Mexican food is like traditional Italian food. The grandmas cook all day on a Sunday for everyone to come to dinner on Sunday evening,” Sanchez said. “I cook a lot of Italian here, and I cook a lot of Mexican as well.”

Sanchez’s home is filled with not-so-subtle hints at his profession, such as the cast iron pans by the fireplace, the 8-foot butcher block in the kitchen and the floor, where he’s filled in cracks in the tile with silverware.  

“My friend and I did the floors ourselves,” Sanchez said. “We went all the way to the subfloor because there was a sinking problem. When we fixed that, we tried not to break the tiles, but when we broke those, I said ‘You know what, I can do a pattern with spoons and knives.’ So, that’s how that became.
A fixed mistake.” 

Photos by Ruta Smith
Sanchez’ personal style can be seen at both his restaurant (top) and at home (below).

Backyard bridges gap between home and new restaurant 

After spending four years at R. Kitchen’s West Ashley location, where he owned part of the restaurant and featured Mexican Night on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Sanchez set out on his own again post-pandemic, opening Maya del Sol Kitchen in January. 

The restaurant features Sanchez’s signature country-style Mexican cooking, plus he’s offering bottles of his extra spicy hot sauce made from peppers grown in his backyard. 

“That was one of the reasons to get the house,” he said. “There are flower beds ready for the spring, and we’ve got a bunch of seeds germinating so we can put them in the flower beds in late February.” 

And, this isn’t your average hot sauce — Sanchez’s has chocolate habaneros, Trinidad scorpions, ghost peppers and Mexican cayennes.

“It’s very flavorful, but very hot,” he said. “You put it in your mouth, and it doesn’t kill you. I always tell people that you’ll be surprised by how much your tongue will tolerate if it hits you with flavor first.” 

Spice and flavor are exactly what you’ll find at Maya del Sol, where Sanchez serves a five-course meal with beverage pairings for $60. He has several specialties, including carne en su jugo, house-made tamales and his signature “mole,” a one-of-a-kind sauce you won’t find anywhere else in Charleston. 

“Growing up in a multicultural city, we had a family from Puebla who introduced me to their mole,” Sanchez said. “So I took that recipe and some of the items that I like the most from my mom’s and some of the items that I like the most from my grandma’s, and that’s how I came up with the mole I sell at the restaurant. Depending on what I can find, it’s about 75 ingredients.” 

Opening a restaurant during a pandemic has meant long hours and late nights, but Sanchez is looking forward to spending more time at home in his garden and that newly renovated kitchen, where there’s still more work to be done. 

“I have so much working space, you know. I can knead dough; I can butcher and experiment,” he said. “I’m still working — I want to do a metal tile ceiling.” 

Tried-and-true family recipes are the hallmark of Sanchez’s cooking, a style he’s proud to showcase at Maya del Sol. 

“(The restaurant) gives me an opportunity to explore a lot of dishes that I have had in the back of my brain from my grandma and my mom.”  

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