Hugo Chavez is dead, but Venezuelan food lives on at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, the second S.F. spot for Carácas cuisine. And it's far less polarizing than inflammatory anti-American rhetoric. In fact, it's delicious.
If you can find it, that is. The nondescript Castro location is hidden in plain sight, such that you might find yourself leaning on the front door, scanning Google Maps. (Hint: Pica Pica is next to the Chevron station, behind the accumulation of idling F-Market streetcars). Inside, however, the warmly painted walls and friendly staff indicate that this is a cut above the sea of mediocrity that is eating in the Castro.
Arepas, a Venezuelan staple not unlike pupusas, fill Pica Pica's menu, with a choice between "classic white" or "sweet yellow" corn. (We went with the latter). The shredded beef pabellón -- with sweet plantains, black bean spread and queso fresco -- was a smallish but thoroughly satisfying meal, especially with the airy crunch of the coleslaw balanced against the hearty stewed meat.
And then there's the matter of that mystery condiment populating every table. It's "mojo sauce," and it's made with red and white vinegar, carrots, onions, jalapeño and habanero peppers, and honey. You may approach it with hesitation, fearing heat, but you will quickly have an epiphany: go ahead and drown that arepa. Because the smoky tang of mojo sauce is perfection.
Nice touches abound at Pica Pica: attentive service, masks on the walls, a check that comes tucked in a Venezuelan novel. Plus, upstairs seating means you could theoretically catch a glimpse of naked people sunning in the parklet, should San Francisco realize its grievous error and let them return.
Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, 3970 17th St., (415) 525-3359.
Follow Pete Kane at @wannacyber