In the taxonomy of sandwiches — the grinders and the pita pockets, the panini and the smørrebrød — there is one commonality that separates the sandwich from all other classes in the handheld food phylum: the bread. The Venezuelan arepa thus ends up in limbo. A thick, soft corn cake, split like an English muffin and filled with almost anything, including cheese and vegetables, the arepa is the platypus of handheld foods — belonging to both the sandwich and the tortilla-pupusa classes.
Arepas proliferate on the northern curve of South America — primarily Venezuela and Colombia, though they're common in the surrounding countries as well. San Francisco now has two arepa restaurants at opposite ends of the Mission: Mr. Pollo, an Ecuadoran-Colombian shop with a new Venezuelan chef, and Pica Pica, a Venezuelan restaurant from Napa that just established a second spot at Valencia and 15th streets. Both restaurants are caught up in San Francisco's sandwich rush, a wave of cooks determined to make art out of a casual meal. Like many of their cohort, Pica Pica and Mr. Pollo sometimes do.
The older of the two, Mr. Pollo, has been around for four years. Its owner, Angelo Vaca, is Ecuadoran, his wife Colombian, and when they opened, they sold small arepas stuffed with cheese alongside Colombian fare like arroz con pollo and bandeja paisa. Though the arepas were good, the restaurant seemed too small to flourish. I've seen restaurants whose walk-in refrigerators are bigger than the red-and-gold room; it's big enough for a small cooking station and chairs for 10 people who don't mind touching their neighbors. But seven months ago, Manny Torres Gimenez, a Venezuelan who'd cooked for 12 years in high-end restaurants including Coi, A16, and Quince, took over running the restaurant.
Six days a week, Gimenez works alone, polite and quick, dapper in his white waiter's jacket and bowtie. He does everything, from shopping at the farmers' markets and breaking down whole goats and lambs to serving food and doing dishes.
He's still selling the Vacas' Colombian arepas ($1.50), which look like miniature pupusas but have a surprising sweetness. But he's added thinner, CD-sized savory Venezuelan arepas filled with a choice of meats, chorizo, or vegetables (all $6.50). They're so thin that splitting them into halves must take a knife of surgical sharpness, and they cook up into a crisp-edged, almost crackery shell. Diners who dispense with the paper wrappers before eating the arepas risk coming out of the experience looking like they've been in the front row of a Gallagher show. Between the halves, Gimenez layers meat, cheese, avocado, tomato, and his salsa de ajo, a mayonnaise fragrant with garlic and cilantro, potent enough to stop vampires and time.
I've eaten at Mr. Pollo several times over the past three months. I've had arepas filled with overly chewy pork with burned edges, but also tender, cumin-crusted goat with plantains and cheese, and an arepa packed with grilled cabbage, zucchini, onions, and cheese. When they're good, his arepas crackle and gush, every bite a different story, the narratives laced together with the jade-colored sauce.
Gimenez makes up dinner platters ($10) consisting of any of the meats or vegetables he stuffs the arepas with, surrounded with your choice of three sides (salad, beans, plantains, yuca, or rice). In the Mission, a cult of Manny has arisen based on his four-course tasting menus — for $15 a person — which he changes daily. Chowhounders and Yelpers have reported octopus, lamb, and papaya salad. The tasting menu I had a few months back, which came to the table over the course of a couple of hours, was more prosaic: a cheese arepa, followed by grilled shrimp over rice; a deep-fried beef empanada; and a perfectly cooked chunk of grilled pork, every course drizzled with the same salsa de ajo. Meanwhile, all 10 seats were occupied from the time I entered to the time I left, and teenagers stood in the gaps among tables, chatting up Gimenez in English and Spanish while they waited for takeout. He doesn't need advertising. He needs an assistant to help him crank up production.
By contrast, Pica Pica Maize Kitchen is already rocking at high volume. Venezuelans Adriana Lopez Vermut; her father, Leopoldo Lopez Gil; and Luis Sosa opened the first Pica Pica in Napa's Oxbow Market in December 2007. Two months ago, they opened in the old Mi Lindo Yucatan space on Valencia. Their reputation preceded them. The Missionites who now occupy the commercial strip from Four Barrel to Beretta are giving the place a go, and South American–accented Spanish is almost as common in the room as English.
Pica Pica's decor is as coordinated as a Brown Twins appearance: The pinstriped wood tables mirror the paneling on the wall. The orange, green, and yellow flourishes match the playful, 1960s-tinged design of the menu and the website. The dishes on the menu interlock more tightly than a Lego space shuttle kit. Everything about the place is smart, attractive, timely, and just a wee bit overpolished. One of my friends looked inside, spotted slogans like "aMAIZE Yourself" and "Be Corny" on the menus and T-shirts, and announced that Pica Pica looked like the South American Chipotle (in fact, Sosa's career includes a stint at McDonald's).
The restaurant sells all of its not-quite-sandwiches on a choice of three cornbreads: arepa ($7.99), maize'wich (a moist, thick yellow-corn cake the same size as the arepa, $7.99), and cachapa (a cornmeal and whole-kernel pancake, $8.99). An extra $3.25 buys a side of fried ripe plantains flecked with crumbled cheese; a simple chicken, corn, and cheese soup called chupe; your standard mixed greens showered in vegetable confetti; or a paper cone of yuca fries, stout and crunchy.
The arepas themselves, thicker and easier to handle than Gimenez', cook on the grill, yielding a papery shell crosshatched with charred stripes, the insides retaining the creamy-floury texture of a fresh pupusa. The arepa filled with chorizo, shredded cheddar, and tomatoes, and another cupping a pale green chicken salad bound with guasacaca (guacamole spiked with green pepper, tomatoes, and cilantro) came off as solid, hearty, and no-nonsense — an easy lunch to down.
Many weren't. The maize'wich and the rubbery cachapa were so sugary that they overpowered any of the fillings I tried. Too many of the fillings ought to have been good: The too-dry pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) with tomato and avocado; the pelu'a (shredded steak and cheddar); and the catira (chicken sautéed with onions and peppers) needed another sauce to set off their flavors or simply better seasoning. And the empanadas ($3.99 for three) were a disaster, white corn half-moons that we squeezed oil out of just by picking them up.
But if there was one arepa that rivaled the best of Manny Torres Gimenez' complex not-quite-sandwiches, it was the pabellón, named after Venezuela's national dish: shredded steak, ripe plantains, feathery shavings of a salty white cheese, and black beans. It had layers and nuances, the cheese and beans balancing out the sweetness of the fruit, the meat tender and deeply flavored, the arepa toasty. I started eating it in the car, then set it aside until I was sitting at my kitchen table. A sandwich — or arepa — that good shouldn't be eaten on the run.