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While walking briskly down a squalid stretch of 16th Street, I catch the sprightly sign: "Mayan Cuisine with a Modern Touch." Oh, dear not another pan-Latin fusion place? The contemporary decor seems to confirm the cynical observer's judgment.
2886 16th St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
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Empanada, salbute, or panucho $2.25
Three tostadas $5
Turkey chilmole $8
Frijol con puerco $8
Poc chuc $12
A glance at the menu heads off the trendophobic panic attack. Panuchos, salbute, poc chuc: Popol Vuh's cuisine is Yucatecan, and thus honestly entitled to the Mayan label, both since the Yucatan was a part of the vast pre-Columbian empire and since many of its people still identify culturally as Mayan. (The name, however, comes from what is today Guatemala: The Popol Vuh was the sacred book of the ancient Quiché kingdom.)
Architecturally, this is your usual low-rent hole-in-the-wall, deep and so narrow that there's not room to seat a party of six without blocking the aisle. Clearly the owners didn't have a big budget to redecorate the place, but thanks to a tasteful and original color scheme, cute custom furniture, lots of framed mirrors, and indirect lighting, the space is much warmer and welcoming than your typical Mission taqueria. The service is a cut above what you might expect from a place in this price range: For example, on one visit, when we were sharing a messy assortment of appetizers, the server gave us new cutlery for our main courses. One inhospitable note the seating is individual backless benches, which take up less room in the tight space but aren't as comfortable as chairs if you linger.
What the heck, the food is worth the risk of a backache. Popol Vuh's kitchen prepares even the most basic items with exceptional care and skill. Tortillas are handmade to order from a massive heap of fresh masa, served hot, and replenished until you're satisfied. Rice gets a boost from being cooked with broth, aromatic vegetables, and herbs. Black beans, so often a bland and forgettable side dish, have such rich flavor from onions and epazote that they're good on their own.
The appetizers are all variations on the theme of the tortilla. My favorite is the panucho, which is similar to a pupusa except it's filled after cooking. A fresh tortilla is split down the middle (some cooks add a little flour to the masa to help it puff up), filled with a paste of black beans, and then the hot sandwich is topped with shredded chicken, cabbage, and avocado. A little splash of the accompanying lime-habañero-onion salsa and this is a bright, crunchy, spicy, earthy cacophony of flavors and textures. A word of warning about that salsa habañeros are around 50 times spicier than jalapeños (no, I'm not exaggerating; Google "Scoville units"), so a little goes a long way. The empanadas are another standout. A raw-masa tortilla is filled with a mix of ground pork and black beans and the edges are crimped to make a half-moon turnover, which is then fried crisp and topped with tomato sauce.
The salbute is a Yucatecan variation on a tostada: A tortilla is fried, then topped with chicken, cabbage, tomato, and avocado. Traditionally, a small amount of black bean purée would be kneaded into the masa before making the tortillas, but if Popol Vuh does that, I couldn't taste the difference. I preferred the tostadas they're pretty much the same thing, improved by being fried crisper and adding a layer of black bean purée underneath the toppings. They come as a "trio" with three toppings, which is a bit of a drag since the turkey one outshines the chicken and vegetarian versions.
Speaking of which, if turkey chilmole, also known as pavo en relleno negro, is among the daily specials, get it. The distinctive ingredient is recado de chilmole, a bizarre-sounding but good-tasting spice paste made by burning dried chiles until they're completely black, really to ashes, then grinding them with garlic, black pepper, allspice, oregano, annatto, dried epazote, and other ingredients. Traditionally, a turkey stuffed with ground pork and eggs is slowly simmered in water flavored with the recado. Whether Popol Vuh is that old-school about its cooking techniques, I don't know cooks today often start with cooked turkey but the bird was juicy and delicious, and the complex sauce did include pork and eggs.
Pavo en relleno blanco, despite the name, was an utterly different dish. Given that the menu translated this as "turkey gumbo," it came as a bit of a shock to receive a bowl with a good portion of shredded white meat, swimming in white sauce made from turkey stock, topped with a dollop of lively fresh tomato sauce, and garnished with a thick slice of stuffing (or meatball) of ground pork and hard-boiled egg yolks. It wasn't bad, and from what I've read since, the preparation was entirely traditional, but unless you have an exceptionally large appetite for béchamel sauce, I don't recommend it.
In the old days, pibil meant meat or fowl rubbed with a paste of annatto, spices, and citrus juice, wrapped in banana leaves, and slowly roasted in a pit. Popol Vuh presumably braises its pollo pibil on the stovetop or in the oven, but the dish still has a deep, earthy flavor from long, slow cooking with the spices. Often such thoroughly cooked chicken ends up dry, but as with the turkey dishes, the kitchen here somehow manages to keep it juicy.
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