Last Tuesday I experienced one of my most caveman-like meals yet (this is saying a lot as I often describe myself as a carnivore by nature). That book Omnivore’s Dilemma? Why the state of quandary? Because he is an Omnivore. All that confusion goes away when you just embrace the meat and everything that comes with it…
Yet I digress. Where did the said act of aggressive meat-eating take place? At Poc Chuc, a hole in the wall Mayan/ Yucatecan restaurant in a rather sketchy part of the Mission (Ladies – do not go walking around here alone. There is a reason parking is not a problem in this spot of town and it may have something to do with a high potential for break-ins). Location? 16th and South Van Ness. There is a large tree partially blocking the sign for Poc Chuc so make sure to keep your eyes peeled. Verdict? I’ll go ahead and say it in the first two paragraphs of this entry. Pao Wow!
A Favorite of the Experts
I first heard about Poc Chuc when I interviewed Gonzalo Guzman, chef of Nopalito. I asked Gonzalo, not just a well-respected chef in the city with boatloads of experience, but also someone with a Mexican heritage, where he went for Mexican food in the city. He said two words, which at first I did not catch, or even know how to pronounce. I only made the connection that he was talking about Poc Chuc when I happened upon a review one day while doing some restaurant research.
Let me be upfront…Poc Chuc is not anything like Nopalito. It is not well-designed with colorful hues of green and brown. Nor does the restaurant serve sustainable ingredients from local purveyors. You do not go to Poc Chuc for the ambiance. I do not want to underestimate the air of casual comfort and warmth emanating from the bright red walls or welcoming owners who seek to make your meal as enjoyable as possible. The restaurant may be no frills, but be confident in its single determined focus: delivering authentic Mayan food to the people who really know the difference.
To quench our thirst, we took advantage of the selection of Aguas Frescas and Horchata. Our table of four ordered 2 Horchatas (which according to my Latin friends is the real deal at Poc Chuc – more rice-based and authentic than other spots in the city), 1 Tamarindo and 1 Pineapple agua fresca. There are also Watermelon and Jamaica (Hibiscus) beverages available. Poc Chuc used to be BYOB because they do not have a liquor license, but recently the SF PD cracked down on this establishment so BYOB is no more. Small tear.
When you eat a meal at Poc Chuc, you immediately notice the different flavor patterns. The restaurant is Mayan, part of the Yucatan Peninsula, so there are elements of Caribbean and European cuisine. The geography of the Yucatan plays into its food. Mountains isolated the region from the rest of Mexico for centuries, allowing the area to develop its own meld of flavors. As ports opened and trade grew, so did Yucatan cuisine. Strong citrus flavors, red onion, fish, achiote and habanero play prominently, as does apparently turkey, something I was not aware of before Tuesday. The words “poc chuc” actually refer to a popular pork dish cooked in an orange citrus sauce, with achiote recado (spice paste mix).
We started our meal with the Platillo Maya, a selection of different appetizers like Panuchos, Salbute, Empanadas, Tostadas and Kotzitos. Homemade tortillas are a staple at Poc Chuc, and let me tell you, these are the best homemade tortillas I’ve had to date in SF. Both the Panuchos (served on a lightly fried tortilla) and Salbute (served on a handmade tortilla puff) come with shredded turkey, pickled red onions and lemon marinated cabbage. The acidity of the red onion complements the savory meat and the cabbage adds an extra crunch for additional texture. Black bean paste is another common ingredient of the Platillo Maya offerings. The Kotzito is basically a miniature taquito, served with salsa and queso fresco. We also ordered the Veggie Trio – a vegetarian appetizer which replaces turkey and pork with vegetables like zucchini, mushrooms and bell peppers.
For the main courses, we opted for a diverse selection to share family-style. The portions at Poc Chuc are large, so large in fact that we had to get a second table for all our food and beverages. I ordered the Costillas; pork spare ribs cooked the “poc chuc” way, slowly roasted over a few hours. The meat was incredibly tender, and I morphed into caveman-like mode when I realized that the roasting juices had infused so deeply into the bone that I could eat the bone marrow like it was a rich, flavorful paste, AND the bone itself! I’ve had bone marrow before, but never bone. I honestly do not think complete bone take-down was intended by the chef, but I am sharing the experience so you can grasp just how much slow-roasted goodness was in the dish to make the bone soft and delicate. Even my vegetarian friend, Isela, was convinced to try a bit of bone marrow after seeing me ecstatically take down 2 spare ribs. If a vegetarian committing an act of carnivorous eating does not convince you of the power of Poc Chuc, I do not know what will.
We also ordered the Pescado Frito – an entire fried fish with head and tail, served with lime juice and spicy habanero salsa. The dish looked impressive but if you ask me, I think it lacked in the flavor category. I had to add a good amount of salsa to have any real kick of flavor otherwise I just tasted the char of the grill.
Our third entrée was the dish of the house, Poc Chuc. Several thinly sliced pieces of pork are cooked the Poc Chuc way, marinated in citrus and then grilled. Red onions are also grilled and served on top of the pork. I think the best way to eat Poc Chuc is to take a homemade tortilla, add the pork and red onions, then top it with the sides of black bean paste and vegetable bouillon rice that accompany almost every dish in the restaurant.
Our last dish was the Pollo Pibil, a slowly-braised chicken dish served with traditional flavors of achiote, orange, onion, tomatoes and a bit of epazote. I usually do not order chicken dishes when I go out but this did not fail to impress. The meat was succulent, the flavors deep and developed, and the red chili paste and chicken oil combined with the rice for a tasty bite.
Upon completion of our Mayan feast, we sat with our bellies full, our hearts happy and our taste buds excited for the cornucopia of flavors unique to the Yucatan. You already know my rating of Pao Wow so I’ll end this entry here and let the food speak for itself on your next visit.