Sadly, 2013 isn't off to the best start. Why? Because one of my all-time favorite restaurants is changing, and in the process, dying. Mr. Pollo may not be closing, but with the recent, shall we say, "Hostile Takeover" of the space and the departure of the heart of the restaurant, Chef Manny Torres Gimenez, it's certainly the end of an era (more details to follow soon, in a separate write-up). The Mr. Pollo we've all loved over the last three years is essentially gone, which means one thing's for sure: it looks like I will be arepa'd no more.
It's hard to believe that, despite its popularity and nation-wide press coverage, changes that would drastically affect the quality of the food and the character of the restaurant could occur so suddenly. But alas, in roughly the span of a month the decision to overturn control to Chef Johnny was made, and the man who built it up from nothing was kicked to the curb. The silver lining is that Chef Manny has already opened another restaurant 5 doors down from Mr. Pollo, on the same block, and will be serving a soup, salad, and two pasta courses for $20 Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. The space is called Roxy's, a smoothie and sandwich shop previously only open for lunch. It may not be the Venezualan-esque cuisine we're all accustomed to, fear not! Most of his professional experience has been cooking in high-end Italian restaurants, so the food won't disappoint. Oh yeah, and word on the street is that Chef Manny might be bringing an arepa machine with him when he returns from a holiday vacation, so we may still be able to experience his A-Game.
But back to Mr. Pollo. If you've visited in the last month, you may not have really realized the changeover: Johnny's tattoos and backwards cap was behind the stoves in the three months prior to the shakeup, assisting Chef Manny in his role as sous; the menu and prices haven't fundamentally changed much at all because, rather than messing with a good thing, Johnny has kept the heart of the menu the same, but makes sure to leave his mark by featuring his obscenely large signature on the daily menu that's taped to the window; and the decor is still as "rugged" as ever, with a few duct-tape touch ups here and there.
However, if you're anything like me, a person born with taste buds, you may have noticed a marked decline in the quality of the food being served. Yes, okay, you can still order a good arepa, but don't expect the magic of Chef Manny's 4-course tasting menu. Prior to the turnover, I tried Johnny's tasting menu on a night when he was flying solo, so I've gotten the full experience of what is essentially the new Mr. Pollo. All four members of my party agreed - it wasn't just bad for Mr. Pollo, it was terrible for anywhere. Since I wasn't very motivated to commit the details to memory, I won't describe each course, but the first one sums it up. On a very cold, very windy night in San Francisco, with a wicked draft coming in from the broken door which couldn't be closed, and no heat action from the stoves warming the room, Johnny starts us off with cold soup. Because nothing says "Welcome" like keeping your food and guests at the same, ice-cold temperature. I want to say it was with watermelon and tomato, but frankly I took one bite and immediately stopped eating it or thinking about it any further. The best part? Following it up with another cold dish, equally as disappointing. I mean, Venezuelan and Californian Cuisine is all about bland soups and long winters...right?
My second experience with his cooking was lackluster as well, a major issue with seasoning, which actually led me to say something to Chef Manny in hopes that the feedback could help them avoid potential complaints. I add that detail because, hell, sometimes it's hard enough finding the balls to voice criticisms of a dish directly to an Executive Chef, so it's not every day that I go out of my way to share my concerns about his sous. Unfortunately, it was too late for improvement - the plot had been laid, a business arrangement had been made behind Chef Manny's back, and the wheels were already in motion for this side-kick to takeover the stoves. I'm not sharing the details of this story in this particular post to avoid sounding too biased due to drama, gossip, or my personal opinion of the people involved. This one is about the food.
Here's what it all boils down to: Unless you find yourself in the area, desperately craving an arepa, I wouldn't suggest going to Mr. Pollo. Because the menu was created almost single-handedly, ad-hoc, and changed every single day, the restaurant was really an extension of the chef himself; Chef Manny was Mr. Pollo. Now, it's no longer the same restaurant, and the food is simply not that great.
2823 Mission St
(between 24th St & 25th St)
San Francisco, CA 94110