Local chefs tend to run into each other at Annabelle Lenderink’s La Tercera vegetable stand at the Tuesday Ferry Plaza Farmers’ market during chicory and shelling bean season. One day she introduced me to Mr. Pollo, actually Manny Torres Gimenez, the chef/ partner at Mr. Pollo, a literal hole in the wall on Mission.
About three months later I found it–four tables, two stools and a tiny open kitchen with bad ventilation, plus a few tables on the sidewalk. Despite its name, Mr. Pollo specializes in arepas, a Venezuelan/Colombian street snack made of masa, and a four course prix fixe meal served at both lunch and dinner, for all of $15.
It was noon. The little place was empty and I ordered a goat arepa ($6.50). Twenty minutes later, a fantastic looking sandwich, wrapped in parchment paper and foil, standing on end in a wire rack, was set down on my aluminum table. It was golden and crunchy/chewy on the outside with a steaming, creamy interior filled with a juicy mix of toothsome grilled goat, peppers and onions, avocado, white cheese and a vinegary cilantro and chile salsa. The texture of the corn cake, simultaneously resistant and crisp, and the vibrant, herby, succulence of the filling, kept my mouth enthralled to the very last messy crumb. Then and there I figured out my strategy for dinner.
A few days later at 5:45 p.m. I stood on the sidewalk outside the locked front gate, with two bottles of wine in my nerdy plastic carrier. At 6:01 p.m., Manny rushed up to the gate, slid it back, and ushered in the little knot of people at the front door.
Manny handed out a knife and a fork wrapped in a paper napkin, and plastic mugs of water. About a half hour later the first course appeared: a little square of griddled trout with crispy skin topped with a “cloud” of parsnip cream, a splash of green sauce and a sprinkle of lavender, all on multi colored carrot ribbons with tiny spears of wild arugula. It all worked, except for the lavender.
The next dish was really good: tiny grilled squid on a bed of tiny grilled brussels sprouts in brown butter and lemon, everything crispy and true flavored. Perfect technique and no gimmicks.
And then, everyone stared jealously as the Fulton Valley chicken arepa ($10) we ordered in addition to the prix fixe came to us, and it was even better than the goat arepa I had for lunch.
Next course: a mini arepa, deep fried, sweet, filled with corn and white cheese, topped with a tidbit of foie gras. At 8:15 we were served a half sweet water prawn, almost raw, with long, dramatic tentacles, on sticky rice dressed with pickled cabbage and a creamy green sauce. Then Manny finally stepped it up as he delivered the checks and collected the cash.
This meticulous California cooking, in miniature, comes as a surprise in an arepa shop, but there really wasn’t quite enough to eat, and the meal took way too long, especially with 70‘s disco blasting away for two plus hours. Afterwards, over a piece of pie up the street at Mission Pie, I felt relieved that this eccentric, proudly unprofessional experience was over. I’m sticking to pollo arepas at Mr. Pollo. For them, I will wait.
Mr. Pollo, 2823 Mission (between 24th and 25th streets), San Francisco
Contact: 415 374-5546; www.mrpollosf.com
Hours: daily 11a.m. to 3 p.m.; 6 to 11:45 p.m.
Price range: $1.50-$6.50 for arepas; $15 for a prix fixe meal
Recommended dishes: chicken arepa, lamb with fried yucca, watercress salad and beans; $15 prix fixe meal
Credit cards: cash only
Reservations: not accepted