Cevichería Nais Chef Danny Godinez at Center of Lawsuit Battle With El Mercado

Godinez: Stick to chilaquiles. Photo by John Gilhooley

Two Mexican restaurants on the edge of Santa Ana’s gentrified East End Promenade oppose each other in more ways than one. El Mercado Modern Cuisine rests near the Yost Theater with its heralded cocktails and concept menu featuring flavors from different Mexican states. Across the way from El Mercado is Cevichería Nais, the newest spot on the scene that’s perhaps better known for its early business association with #MeToo’d former OC Labor Federation executive director Julio Perez than anything coming out of the kitchen.

The two eateries are within easy walking distance of each other, but legal battles set them worlds apart. Alongside his wife, Cevichería Nais chef Danny Godinez, once involved with El Mercado, is currently suing the other restaurant’s partners, Fernando Franco, Doris Valencia and manager Jose Cerrudo. El Mercado returned the favor by filing a countersuit.

The lawsuits and the bad blood they reveal add a layer of intrigue as to why Godinez would open a new restaurant so close to one he’s trying to legally destroy. Filed in July 2017, the chef’s complaint is rife with a self-assessment of his “stellar reputation” on OC’s foodie scene. “Daniel’s credibility and reputation as a chef have become jeopardized by El Mercado,” the suit alleges. How so?

In September 2016, El Mercado opened its doors, with Godinez cooking in the kitchen for the soft and grand openings. He cites his past success with Anepalco Mexican Restaurant in Orange as having given him the clout to secure an “extremely favorable lease” from S&A Properties, the company run by Irv and Ryan Chase that has gentrified downtown Santa Ana in recent years. The countersuit alleges that Godinez had entered into an oral agreement with Franco and Cerrudo in October 2015 to create a full menu, develop recipes, train kitchen personnel and, most important, cook. But on opening day, according to Franco, Valencia and Cerrudo, the menu and recipes were incomplete, kitchen staff were inadequately trained, and the full costs and inventory hadn’t been gathered.

Furthermore, the lawsuit says, the cook left the kitchen in breach of his agreement and promises. “After Sept. 17, 2016, Daniel Godinez did not return to the El Mercado Restaurant,” it claims.

That December, Godinez and his wife, Amaryllis Lopez, say they attempted to negotiate a buyout, as she was a part of the operating agreement for El Mercado. They claim to have invested $100,000 in the project and that El Mercado’s partners didn’t provide any profit and loss statements or balance sheets, “even though they agreed to do so.” In representing Godinez and Lopez, lawyer Norma V. Garcia, Orange County Hispanic Bar Association’s current “attorney of the year,” paints a portrait of Franco, Valencia and Cerrudo as a trio that failed to pay debts, let the restaurant bank balance fall below $0, and did not take Godinez’s ideas into consideration but used his reputation to attempt to receive discounts with vendors.

In any legal battle, of course, there are two versions of what actually happened. Franco, Valencia and Cerrudo’s countersuit, filed in April by the Irvine-based Lee E. Burrows firm, gives a very different account of what went on outside the kitchen. Relying on Godinez’s oral agreement, they say they bought kitchen equipment, entered a lease and made improvements to the location. They also hired staff and acquired expenses for obtaining a liquor license. As El Mercado was just weeks away from its grand opening, they claim that Godinez revealed he was working on Maestro Restaurant in Pasadena. “The only reason Daniel Godinez informed Jose Cerrudo and Fernando Franco at that time was because he had failed to prepare the agreed-upon menu, establish an inventory, develop recipes, train staff or develop costing for menu items,” the suit alleges.

While El Mercado’s grand opening was in September, Godinez had publicly announced Maestro in Eater LA in June, months before its opening. But the trio believes Godinez was involved with developing Maestro for at least several months before entering his oral and operating agreements in October 2015. “Daniel Godinez never intended to fulfill his promises or agreements with El Mercado and instead intended to leave El Mercado to develop Maestro Restaurant, which he apparently believed offered him greater opportunity and/or prestige,” the suit alleges.

Maestro had its grand opening in January 2017, a month after Godinez and Lopez say they attempted to negotiate a buyout from El Mercado. In an eyebrow-raising turn of events, Godinez left his chef position at Maestro, where Eater LA called his ceviche “flat and uninteresting,” just eight months later to return to OC, where he’d eventually plan a new concept restaurant based on the dish at Diego’s Rock-N-Roll Bar & Eats’ old digs.

The professed damage to Godinez’s credibility at the crux of his suit against El Mercado seems trivial in comparison to where he stands now. In opening Cevichería Nais down the street, the chef faced a hailstorm of criticism, a barrage of bad Yelp reviews and promised boycotts after it was revealed in state corporation filings that he teamed up with Perez, the disgraced labor boss fired in January after an investigation found multiple sexual-harassment claims to be credible. In a time when the world is mourning the loss of Anthony Bourdain’s politically aware food commentary, Godinez told Eater LA that Perez voluntarily divested from Santo Brothers Group, the business that owns Cevichería Nais, and that the criticisms were “all politics.” Godinez insisted he’s just a chef that cooks.

After the Weekly’s story about Perez’s involvement (see Matt Coker’s “Ousted Labor Chief Julio Perez Reemerges as a Partner at Danny Godinez’s Restaurant,” May 30), Cevichería Nais refiled its business paperwork, this time without him listed as secretary. While Perez may be out amid Godinez’s claims that he doesn’t “do politics,” that still leaves the question as to why he eyed the location for a new restaurant so close to the one he is trying to have dissolved against its will.

Cevichería Nais may not have an announced grand-opening date, but the lawsuit has a Nov. 19 trial date in the courtroom of Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory H. Lewis.