Poc Chuc has been around since about 2007, run by the same family, albeit under different names. First came Popol Vuh, named after a sacred book of an ancient people in what is now Guatemala. Next came Chichen Itza, after the famed Mayan city in Mexico. Apparently, there was a fight with a restaurant in Los Angeles over the rights to the name, and so our little Yucatecan outpost became Poc Chuc, after one of the signature dishes of the area.
Poc Chuc serves food from the Yucatecan region of Mexico, in the southeast of the country. When it first opened, it was much nicer than the other Mexican places around; it certainly wasn’t your everyday taqueria. I’d been to the Yucatán in the 80s so I was familiar with some of its food. Even Tommy’s out on Geary, which is pretty much a standard (although wonderful in its cheesiness) Mexican-American restaurant, has a delicious version of the famous dish, and that was all I ever ordered there.
After all those years, we came back one night and found the restaurant had not changed much, albeit it may have been a little more run down than I remembered. Hell, so am I, nine years later. At the last table in the back sat the owners’ son, a boy of about 11, who alternately worked on a school project, helped serve dishes to the tables, and sliced onions in the prep area. I was happy to see it was still very much a family-run place, with balloons floating limply from a chair, leftovers from someone’s birthday party, paint chipped here and there, and bad music blaring from the juke box – to me, ear-grating Latin pop. But the food was still excelente.
The kid brought us homemade tortilla chips with two hot sauces…
The chunky one was a roasted tomato salsa, with a mild amount of heat, a tad sweet. The other was an habanero salsa – a very spicy chili used frequently in Yucatecan cooking – fruity and hot, and the two were actually the perfect salsa when mixed together. I ate almost that entire bowl of chips by myself.
The sangria helped to cool things down. Their sangria, by the way, is outstanding. It’s the perfect amount of winey-ness and not too sweet, served in a big old tumbler.
We segued into an appetizer plate, the Platillo Maya.
A platter of Yucatecan joy! We made our way through the various, corn-tortilla-based savory snacks – a panucho: a hand-made tortilla that’s been slit, with black bean puree spooned in. The tortilla is then lightly fried and topped with shredded turkey, marinated cabbage, pickled red onions and avocado.
Wait, “turkey?”, you ask? Not chicken, not pork? Nope, turkey. Before there were chickens in the Americas, there were turkeys (remember that whole Thanksgiving thing?), and the Maya put them in a lot of yummy dishes. The turkey adds so much more flavor than chicken. And while it will never take the place of pork in my palate, moist pavo on a corn tortilla instantly conjures up the taste and smell of the Yucatán for me. Next on the platter, a salbute, which is almost the same as a panucho, but not stuffed, and a little crispier. They were both delicious, though for me the salbute edged out the panucho. A little empanada was next, stuffed with ground pork with tomato sauce baked onto it. Also on the plate were a tostada, which was simply a crispy fried tortilla smeared with black beans and topped with queso fresco, and a kotzito – more or less a crispy taquito covered in a tomato/onion sauce.
For my meal, I had my old favorite…
Poc Chuc! Most commonly a pork steak marinated in sour orange juice and then grilled, the words themselves simply mean to “toast” over “fire.” If that doesn’t sound very enticing, you’re wrong. There’s something about how the citrus permeates the meat, melding with the smokiness, which makes it a dish greater than the sum of its parts and, seemingly, of its quite simple cooking method.
It is served here with a vegetable-bouillon rice, a grilled tomato salsa and pickled red onions, and a side of black bean puree to spoon over the rice. But before you do – taste that rice. People don’t believe me when I say how difficult it is to find a cook who knows how to make good rice in restaurants, but it’s a real talent. In Mexican rice dishes (as in most Latin cultures’), the uncooked rice is typically toasted in hot oil, and then liquid – broth, water, spices, or any combination – is added for the rice to absorb. Getting that ratio of chewiness and flavor from the initial frying, and the absorption of the liquid so that each grain is separate, distinct, and imbued with character, is no easy thing. Poc Chuc’s was savory, homey, and had a good chew – it was perfectly cooked.
The brothy black beans that come on the side were delicious too – fresh tasting, with a deep, yet subtle flavor that comes from epazote, a pungent herb similar to oregano or anise, but stronger-tasting.
The grilling on my meat was perfect, giving it that signature char and smoky taste. And what’s that in the upper left corner of the pic? Homemade corn tortillas! Thick, hot, and absolutely delectable. Night and day from the mass-produced stuff you get in your local stupidmarket. You can get refills here, and you’ll want them. They’re perfect for dipping in the thick beans, making little tacos of whatever’s on your plate, while little moans of happiness emanate from your table….
The BF had the salpicon, typically a hodge-podge dish of chopped meat and salad. Here, the dish consisted of shredded flank steak, mixed with chopped red onions, cilantro and radishes. It was juicy, flavorful, and he really enjoyed it. It came with marinated cabbage, tomatoes, limes, and the same tasty rice and beans.
My next visit was with two girlfriends on a Saturday night. I’d heard that sometimes there is a bit of live entertainment – a man playing tunes on his guitar in the corner – but alas, the only thing on tonight was the t.v. on the wall.
It was quite busy, though, and our server, while completely able to hold his own and still be friendly and efficient, somehow misunderstood us when we ordered a pitcher of sangria and brought us not only the pitcher but three glasses already full of sangria; so, essentially, we had two pitchers, and one of us wasn’t doing her fair share of drinking. Luckily my other friend and I were able to solider our way through.
Friend Number 1 ordered what I had intended on getting, but offered to share: Pavo en mole. Moles are very complex sauces made up of a multitude of ingredients – dried chili peppers, toasted seeds and nuts, spices and herbs, raisins, chocolate – served over chicken, turkey or pork. There are endless varieties, and they’re a real labor of love, as their preparation can take several hours. Poc Chuc’s is actually a soup rather than a sauce, and is black, which is typically a Oaxacan preparation.
This inky caldo (soup) was so very, very delicious. It was deeply flavored, rich, yet light because it was a soup instead of a sauce, and the slight gaminess of the turkey held its own. A bowl of rice came alongside to add in, along with those fabulously thick tortillas for scooping. This was my favorite dish of the night, and next time, it’s all MINE.
Friend Number 2 ordered pollo pibil. Pibil, whether made with pork (cochinito pibil) or chicken, is actually the most renowned of Yucatecan dishes, made with a citrus marinade and achiote – a bright, red-orange natural food coloring/flavoring agent made from the seeds of the annatto tree – and slow roasted in banana leaves over an open fire. I could not really discern the taste of the achiote, nor any of the smokiness that is typical of the dish, but as a nice chicken stew it was really good and homey. Friend Number Two loved it.
For my main, I went for drama, and ordered the whole fried fish.
Tilapia – in this case; deep fried, with a lovely crispy skin on the outside, super mild, and moist flesh on the inside. Tilapia used to get a bad rap as being a rather unhealthy choice for fish, but most of that has been disproven, while the farming methods have improved. It’s inexpensive and lends itself to all sorts of preparations as it takes to strong flavors. I wished, however, that they had seasoned the fish a bit here – it needed salt. But it was good with the beans, hot sauce, and pickled onions. And yes, I made myself some sublime fish tacos with those wonderful tortillas.
The service was great. We sat at our table, nursing our sangria, for a good long time, chatting, dipping into the beans and salsa with the extra tortillas we’d asked for, well after we were over-full, and dude kept coming by to refill our glasses, asking if we needed anything more, making us feel welcome, while tending to the needs of other tables and big parties.
There are so many Mexican restaurants in the City, and most of them offer the same tacos, burritos, quesadillas, etc., we all know and love. Because that’s what we in America mostly like – Americanized Mexican food. And that’s fine. But Mexico is a big place, with a myriad of regions and different cooking tradition using ingredients unique to each area, which a lot of us know very little about, unless you’re an avid Rick Bayless fan. There are at least three-to-four other Yucatecan places in the Mission, most of which aren’t as dolled up as Poc Chuc, but still worth a try. It’s good to have a regional cuisine so well represented in our City.
And, for the record, Poc Chuc serves tacos, too.
2886 16th St. (between South Van Ness and Shotwell)
San Francisco, CA 94103