Following Jonathan Kauffman's footsteps, my quest to find San Francisco's best arepa led me to Pica Pica Maize, a relatively new Mission eatery located at 15th and Valencia. Although Kauffman was rather critical of many of Pica Pica Maize's menu selections, his description of his arepa led me to believe that I would have a similarly satisfying arepa experience. I was wrong. Comparing Mr. Pollo to Pica Pica is like comparing McDonald's to In&Out - the menu selection may be similar, but the quality of food is radically different.
These differences become obvious as soon as you step inside. While the unpolished interior of Mr. Pollo makes it seem a bit rough around the edges, the brightly-colored interior of Pica Pica Maize drips in commercialization. The block scheme that characterizes the restaurants design - color blocks of lime green, orange, and red that cover the walls, the use of block art collages in the signage - seemed like some sort of corporate branding designed to seem friendly and approachable to consumers. In his SF Weekly article, Kauffman nailed it when he compared Pica Pica's feel to that of a South American Chipotle.
The branding is most apparent on the menu itself, which is clearly tailored to its American audience, coming complete with a glossary of definitions for all of the menu selections with Spanish names (arepa or empanada for example). With such a clear brand image, I was shocked to discover that Pica Pica only had a sister restaurant in Napa and wasn't part of a larger chain.
Unfortunately, it's not just the interior that has been Americanized. While the menu appears to offer common Venezuelan dishes, the food is California's take on this traditional cuisine. Unlike Mr. Pollo, where your arepa selections are simply meat or cheese, Pica Pica offers ten options to choose from, all of which come in one size: huge. These range from classics like the Pabellon with skirt steak, black beans, plantains, and cheese, to non-traditional fare such as the Vegetariana, which uses tofu as its primary component.
My arepa of choice was filled with chorizo, avocado, cheddar cheese, and aioli. Although the potential was there, the final flavor fell flat: the meat was a bit dry and under-seasoned, the cheese was scarce, and the aioli was used far too sparingly. I'm sorry, but if my arepa doesn't require me to wear a baby bib as protection from the globs of sauce that drip out with each glorious bite, then something isn't right. My dining companion opted for the more traditional Pabellon, which, although tastier than the other selection, still seemed to fall short. Despite my disappointment, I'm sure that the food at Pica Pica Maize satisfies the appetites of many Bay Area diners, most of whom haven't developed a palate for this type of cuisine and are drawn to its novelty.
As I was leaving the restaurant, I realized what ultimately sets places like Mr. Pollo and Caracas Arepa Bar apart in my mind: the food is made with love. Now that may be vague and sound slightly cheesy, but you can tell when a chef's heart is in the food. At Mr. Pollo, you know that Manny Gimenez grew up eating this cuisine because you can taste it - an authenticity only achieved by making every plate with love. While I'm sure there are plenty of other places I have yet to try, for now, Mr. Pollo is my top choice for an arep'n good time.
Pica Pica Maize Kitchen
401 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94103