I want to say thank you to a man, a man who I'm sure many of you already familiar with. A man whose unmitigated arrogance and exaggerated self-confidence actually led me to one of my most cherished dining discoveries. Bobby Flay, if it wasn't for that historic episode of Throw Down in 2008, I would have never made Caracas Arepa Bar a dining destination on my visit to New York City. Without you sir, I would have never known the messy, all-encompassing delight of a perfectly cooked arepa.
Since that first drippy, mouthwatering bite of their #20, la Surena, arepas have held a special place in my heart - an indulgence I thought I could only find on the other side of the country. But two months ago, I realized I was wrong.
Thanks to another man, a man whose unwavering commitment to writing about San Francisco's hole-in-the-wall, under-the-radar, unfashionable dining establishments, my eyes were opened to what had been right in front of me for years. Not only did my favorite food writer, Jonathon Kauffman, reveal that arepas are served all over San Francisco, but also that the City's finest was literally just around the corner, no more than half a block from my house.
Although I walked by it everyday, I only saw Mr. Pollo as a shockingly small, unpolished, bare-boned Mission dive - just another joint serving cheap, straightforward taqueria fare. But immediately after reading Kauffman's article in SFWeekly, comparing Mr. Pollo's arepas to the ones served at another Mission eatery, Pica Pica Maize, I saw the error of my ways. Within a week I was in one of the 12 seats that filled a space no larger than a walk-in closet, watching Mr. Pollo's one-man show, also known as Manny Torrez Gimenez.
Although I would later learn that Manny has cooked in a few moderately successful kitchens, with names like A16, Quince, and Coi, I initially had some reservations. Only one chef? A tiny, obscure kitchen on Mission, just steps from McDonalds? The choice of only two types of arepa, cheese or meat? Although the high expectations created by Caracas Arepa Bar led to some initial skepticism, I quickly realized that my concerns were completely idiotic.
Manny is one of the most inviting chefs/owners that I've ever met. Sporting a polished neck tie, a movie-star smile, and a welcoming, friendly demeanor, Manny's positive energy invades the entire restaurant, setting it apart from other Mission dives. But, even when excluding the atmosphere created by this man's dapper charm, the food speaks for itself.
The arepas served at Mr. Pollo are quite large, closer to the size of a pancake rather than a biscuit. Although bigger than I'd been used to, the flavor took me right back to the Lower East Side. The arepa was perfectly crispy on the outside, soft inside, and stuffed to the brim with melted cheese, salty pork, creamy avocado, and a mayonnaise/garlic/cilantro sauce that could bring Sampson to his knees. It dripped of a certain authenticity that can only be found in hidden, no-frills restaurants where the chefs have been ingrained with this style of cooking since childhood. At a whopping $6.50 for a completely satisfying dinner, it's one of the best deals in San Francisco.
Or, if you're feeling more adventurous, Mr. Pollo also offers a $15 chef's tasting menu which Manny creates ad hoc every night. From fried plantains, to spot prawns, specialty arepas, or steak, anything is possible; since it's created on the spot, neither the diner nor the chef himself knows exactly what's coming next. But rest assured that whatever it is, it's gonna be good.
There's just one hitch: The popularity of Mr. Pollo is on the rise, making it nearly impossible to grab a quick bite, or on most nights, even a seat. Popping in for lunch, or arriving right when the doors open for dinner, is the only way to ensure a seat inside. Don't forget that this isn't a taqueria - you're not in-and-out in ten minutes. With only one man behind the stoves, it's likely to be a good 30-40 minutes before your food arrives. In other words, don't swing by if you're in a hurry, or as Kauffman so perfectly stated, "Don't eat arepas on the run." With a mellow attitude, you'll understand why creating something so seemingly simple requires much time and effort, an effort that's evident in the quality of the food. So just sit back, relax, chat with friends (just not too loud unless you want the entire restaurant overhearing), and enjoy the show.
After Mr. Pollo, I was 2 for 2. I had only eaten delicious arepas in my limited, recent experiences. Instilled with the confidence that arepas could do no wrong, I set out to try the second destination mentioned in Kauffman's article: Pica Pica Maize. This next adventure led to yet another realization: not all arepas are made equal.
2823 Mission St
(between 24th St & 25th St)
San Francisco, CA 94110