Our upstairs neighbor was feeling a little under the weather. She went looking for chicken soup, and found a place called Mr. Pollo, a tiny, no-frills restaurant at 2823 Mission Street, near 24th. Mr. Pollo’s storefront had all the charm of an adult bookstore, but the name seemed promising.
The chef asked her what she was looking for. She explained. And then he produced not just chicken soup, but an entire, perfect “when you’ve got a cold” tasting menu. For $15.
Stories like this are how Manny Torres Gimenez, a 29-year-old chef from Venezuela, has acquired a cult following.
Gimenez has worked long hours for some of the finest chefs in the world, including a stint at the French Laundry, in Yountville. He learned a lot, he says. “However, all the time I dreamed of a restaurant where I could do exactly what I want.”
Exactly what he wants turns out to be a restaurant where he controls every aspect of the menu and production. Gimenez starts his day at the farmers market, then moves on to the butcher and the fish monger. Whatever looks good to him appears in the tasting menu for that evening — which costs $15 a person because it’s also important to Gimenez that his food be affordable. The restaurant itself is tiny — only four tables, plus a counter that seats three — so everyone on staff waits and busses tables, and washes dishes. The wait to get in is long; even the dishes on the standard menu take at least 20 minutes to prepare. Mr. Pollo is not fast food.
The refreshing thing about Mr. Pollo is that it is all about the food and the customer. Every time you sit down, you’re asked, “Is there anything to which you are allergic? Any dietary restrictions?”
What is fabulous is that the person asking the questions is the chef who will create the dining experience — either Gimenez or his second-in-command, sous chef Sean Naputi, a 27-year-old from Guam. Co-owner Chris Cook, a pastry chef, is the everything-else guy, and also makes some fantastic desserts.
Gimenez and Naputi met while out drinking with other chefs, and realized that they shared the same ideas relative to taste. “It is natural but a little curious, since I am from Guam and Manny is from Venezuela,” says Naputi. “It has nothing to with either place. We just think alike”.
Gimenez is from Venezuela, but the style of the food is Colombian. The arepas are the only dish where this is apparent; Gimenez serves both the cheese-filled Colombian arepa and the meat-filled Venezuelan version. The Latin menu is very reasonably priced, but it all takes more than 20 minutes — as I mentioned, Mr. Pollo isn’t fast food.
Originally, Mr. Pollo was a Colombian restaurant run by a very nice older woman. When Gimenez took over a few years ago he kept the name and the decor, but gradually shifted the menu to a genre that could be described as Venezuelan-Colombian-European.
I have been there many times over the last year and a half. The portions have gotten smaller, but the quality, and the value, remain astonishing.
I once said, “Manny, you must work 14 hour a day.” He replied that everyone in the restaurant business works 14 hours a day. “Except now I do everything the way I think is best. So it isn’t really work”.