Dayna Lee Believes in Feeding Community
By Amanda Capps
From the time she arrived in 2016, Dayna Lee loved Greenville, but she couldn’t stop longing for one thing unique to her hometown: the food. Now the owner of Comal 864, she started cooking to bring the amazing flavors of the Rio Grande Valley to her new home near the banks of the Reedy.
Although she has fond childhood memories of making tortillas with her grandmother, she was never a chef by vocation. Soon after she and her son relocated to the Upstate, thorough research and ample experiments allowed her natural talent to emerge.
“To get the food I wanted, I had to make it at home,” Lee said.
Lee is a native of Brownsville, a border town located at the southern tip of Texas. According to her, its people are the opposite of pretentious, and they thrive on family and food. “It is such a special place — 99 percent Latino, but it also feels American. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of opportunity. My generation had to leave to make it, but what the town lacks in leadership, they make up for in culture,” Lee said.
In 2019, Lee began introducing that culture to Greenville through a catering business with a name reminiscent of both her homes. “It came from a desire to fuse my heritage with something local. ‘Comal’ is the Spanish word for cast iron skillet, which is what we use heavily in the kitchen, and of course, 864 represents the Greenville area,” she said.
Before taking her home cooking commercial, she “did some time” behind a desk and determined office life was not her calling. Cooking would be her way of binding the elements of service and community she had always treasured.
In addition to catering, she became known through “pop-ups,” as she took her tables, griddles and grills to various businesses such as Fireforge, The Whale and Birds Fly South. Within a few months, she was busy, but as soon as Lee’s pop-ups became popular, food vendors were crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic. Bolstered by her customers, she prepared countless to-go orders, often sending trays of 24-40 tacos to homes and selling salsa by the pint.
“We just had to pivot and change plans. We’re in a constant process of evolving into what we want to be,” Lee said.
Already in talks to open a restaurant in 2019, Lee later realized that the timing, although frustrating, was fortuitous. She vividly recalls a Saturday in 2020 when she struggled to maintain that positive mindset. Driving through Greenville’s West End, she didn’t see a single person or car.
“It was so impactful, crushing really, living in that state of uncertainty. I remember thinking, ‘You’ll never forget this moment, and it’s what you do with it that’s going to matter,’” she said.
With that revelation, she set out to literally feed people, along with their need for community. Lee likes the idea of breaking barriers and thinks she may already have forged a path amid the local craft beer scene. With a laugh, she said the craft beer community can be “very Caucasian.” While she enjoys all patrons, she said it’s exciting to see more Latinos and African Americans coming to breweries.
“I love seeing more and more people who don’t look alike talking to one another,” she said. “I want to use the small platform I have to bring people together.”
Typically outspoken, Lee said both her voice and her food have likely attracted people. She’s proud of the following that has developed organically and the relationships built along the way. One of those relationships led to a creative collaboration with Resident Dogs. The result was one of the hottest hot dogs ever to hit town: Mexican hot link sausages on hoagies, topped with Resident Dogs’ coveted pimento cheese and Comal’s well-known birria meat, and finished with crushed “Flamin’ Hot” Doritos. The proceeds from what Lee termed a brilliant combination benefitted Aid Upstate during the month of June.
When scouting locations for a restaurant, Lee said she looked to areas considered to be “food deserts.” This was not so much a business strategy as a philosophy of true community.
“I’m drawn to parts of town where there’s not much food. I want to make it easy for people to drive or walk over and get something nourishing and satisfying to get them through the day,” Lee said. “We’re going to have plenty of rice, beans or guisada (stew) with every plate, a real ‘working man’s lunch’ but healthy and fresh.”
In September 2021, Comal 864 will go from pop-up to sit-down when Lee takes over the Woodside Avenue building formerly occupied by Woodside Bistro. That type of transition can be challenging, but the Hispanic Alliance and other members of the community have impressed her with their efforts to assist entrepreneurs.
“Sometimes, it seems like the system is set up so you can’t win, but I’ve been fortunate to have help with permits and a lot of the details. That’s allowed me to shake it off, keep my head down and keep doing what I love, cooking and taking care of people,” Lee said.
Once open, the restaurant’s menu will offer Texas-style breakfast plates, meaning hearty portions of potatoes, eggs, chorizo and more, as well as lunch and dinner fare. Comal 864 will be closed on Sundays, but that doesn’t mean Lee will skip the foodies’ favorite meal, brunch. She will host midmorning-midafternoon feasts on Saturdays to accommodate food industry workers who serve others on Sundays.
Authenticity will characterize all of Lee’s food as she supports local Mexican supermarkets and prefers their cuts of meat. One of Lee’s favorite desert delicacies is nopales, better known as cactus leaves.
“I remember cutting off the thorns bare-handed growing up,” Lee said. Now, she grills them to perfection with oil and lemon pepper before serving them as tantalizing sides or as toppers for tacos and nachos. Mexican melting cheese is another nonnegotiable ingredient that is essential to birria quesitacos, served with her signature pineapple adobo sauce. Her effusive descriptions of cilantro and spices may sound complex to the average diner, but she insists that simple and savory go hand-in-hand.
“I’m not trying to outdo or out-weird other people. Real chefs might have disdain for me, but this is what I believe in,” she said.
Affordability is also essential. Lee serves three tacos, along with broth for dipping, for $10 and aptly calls that a “full, full meal.” Her aim is to create a place where everyone feels welcome and loves to gather. The building on Woodside is an “open-air” kitchen concept, and she intends to pack a lot into the relatively compact space, eventually adding a community pantry and a library. Additionally, she will promote the area’s bounty by selling locally made honey, hot sauce and more. She also plans to entertain with movies, music, karaoke, open mic nights and other events — some that will expound on Latino culture and some that will amplify other voices she feels need to be heard.
“It’s important to me that we’re good neighbors to one another and for people to know that no matter what’s in their wallets, they will be fed. I can cook, and if you buy, we’ll be able to feed plenty of others too — and if we can do that, we might be able to do something to make the world a little better.”
Reflecting on the pandemic, Lee said, “We have to do everything we can with the time we have.” She hopes to have a long time to do just that, as she says she will give her all “as long as people keep buying tacos.”