Maize’wich with catira (chicken, sofrito, cheddar).
Cachapa pabellón (skirt steak, plantains, black beans, cheese).
Arepa with pernil (pulled pork, tomatoes, avocado).
Whenever I’d venture up to Napa, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to go to Oxbow Public Market, stocking up on spices from the Whole Spice Company, charcuterie from Fatted Calf, and of course stuffing my face with a porchetta sandwich from Roli Roti (which is sadly no longer there). But one day I took a break from the rotisserie pig to try another kind o’ puerco: the pernil arepa from ~PICA PICA MAIZE KITCHEN~. Imagine a juicy and deeply seasoned pork chuck, nestled into a white corn cake that is about the size of your standard pita bread, but fluffier—more like a fat and sturdy pupusa. And then stuff some tomatoes, cheese, avocado, and aioli in there, and you have one hell of a sandwich. (Yeah, where do I sign?)
This Venezuelan outpost has opened a second location in San Francisco, a bit off the main Valencia Street drag at the corner of 15th Street (where Mi Lindo Yucatan used to be). It’s a fast-casual joint: you order at the counter, and bring a number to your table.
You can choose an arepa ($7.99), a grilled corn flatbread; a “maize’wich” ($7.99), a grilled sweet cornbread; or a cachapa ($8.99), a sweet corn pancake—and then you take your pick from 10 different fillings. (Gluten-free diners, rejoice at all these wheat-free options! Go nuts.) The arepa has a crunchy exterior with a soft filling and is cut open like a pocket, while the cachapa is sweet and folded like a quesadilla once you choose your filling. The maize’wich is like a bastard child of the two: it has the cake-y texture of the arepa, but the sweeter corn base of the cachapa. (My preferred meat delivery vehicle was the arepa since I’m more into savory than sweet.) Oh, and you can add a soup, and side or salad for only $3.25.
It takes a little while to figure out what to order since the ingredients will feel unfamiliar (you will ask yourself questions like, “Should I have the chorizo in an arepa or maize’wich?”). The folks at the counter are happy to make suggestions and steer you—don’t worry, there won’t be a pop quiz at the end.
Of the fillings, the pabellón, with shredded skirt steak, sweet plantains, black beans, and cheese, ended up becoming my new favorite. Definitely a slutty combination. There are a couple chicken options, like catira (with cheese) or the pepeada, a creamy avocado-chicken salad that would work well for lunch. There are also specials, like one evening there was the complete opposite of the pabellón (the yoga, teacher, if you will): a healthy and light mix of arugula, carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, goat cheese, and garlic spread. Actually, there are plenty of vegetarian options (vegan too, just ask); but go for the bean-based fillings—we found the tofu needed some TLC (and flavor). One more quibble: the cheese was never melted enough on the ones that came with cheese.
The empanadas ($3.99) had four different tasty fillings, but ultimately were way too oily for me to handle. The side of sweet plantains came in a paper cone, topped with a salty queso duro; I preferred the crisp and lacy yuca (their spelling) fries instead—also dripping some oil, which I tried to ignore because they tasted so good. You get your pick of a salsa, seven in all (I liked the spicy cream version). There’s beer, wine, or sangria to go with your meal, plus some cool Venezuelan drinks, like the coconut-lemonade granita.
The owner, Adriana Lopez Vermut, has worked closely with her father, Leopoldo Lopez Gil, and family friend Luis H. Sosa on building this unique business. While all the signage and bright colors border on feeling a bit chain-ish, the staff is friendly and helps maintain a personable vibe. It’s a busy establishment, so it’s not really a restaurant to linger in—people will be hawkeye-ing you for your seat. It’s more about getting a quick bite, and offers a break from the neighborhood’s usual taqueria fare, while being equally filling, savory, and in a much-appreciated under-$10 price point. Now, about that pop quiz…