Poor Guam. The speck of land in the western Pacific Ocean, about 4,000 miles west of Hawaii, has been under the thumb of one colonial power or another for the past 500 years. For a few hundred of those, it was a Spanish territory, an important stop on the country's trade route between the Philippines and Mexico. It's been under U.S. sovereignty since the Spanish-American War in 1898, save for a brief Japanese occupation during World War II.
This fractured national identity has led to a fractured national cuisine — a grab bag of European, Latin, and Asian ingredients and techniques. San Francisco has exactly one restaurant serving the food of this island nation: Prubechu, which has been operating since February in the old Roxy's Cafe space at 24th and Mission. I had no idea what to expect from the cuisine of Guam; I didn't even know what to call it. Guamanian? Guamese? Guamish? It turns out that the preferred nomenclature is Chamorro, after the island's indigenous people, and the food, though odd at first bite, tends to grow on you.
Prubechu, which means “you're welcome” in Chamorro, is the brainchild of chef Shawn Naputi and GM Shawn Camacho, both Guamanian expats who, homesick for the food of their childhood, decided to start re-creating it in S.F. They both worked under former Roxy Cafe chef Manny Torres Gimenez, and inherited from him not only the space but also the idea to offer an inexpensive tasting menu — $40 for five courses, a bargain in this town. The food they serve has a few recurring themes. Red achiote seed, likely brought to the country from Mexico during Spanish rule, appears several times. Coconut milk is served in almost everything. Naputi says he's serving the food he ate growing up — “grandma food” — but dressed up with farmers market ingredients and a few plating niceties.
One of Guam's most famous dishes is kelegan, a sort of chicken ceviche, though the chicken is cooked about 80 percent of the way on the grill and only finished in citrus juice. The kelegan was served taco-style on two titiyas (tortilla-like coconut flatbreads) and topped with some shaved scallion. Smoke from the grill mingled nicely with the tang of the lemon in the chicken, but the overall effect was a little bland.
It was livened up for a palate accustomed to the more fiery flavors of Asian and Mexican food with a few spoonfuls of fina'denne', Guam's hot sauce, here made in-house with the traditional vinegar and soy sauce. Camacho warned me that it was hot, and it was, for a second, but then remarkably the spice faded, leaving nothing more then its pleasant, buzzy after-effects. This is a condiment that could rival Sriracha given half a chance.
Some of the more traditional dishes are on the short a la carte menu, and provide a glimpse into the food of Guam's home kitchens. Tinaktak is a pasta dish that includes ground beef chuck, coconut milk, house-made cappellini, and pole beans — it could uncharitably be called coconutty Hamburger Helper, though the noodles were beautifully crafted, all smooth and supple, and the luscious sauce would have benefited from a more interesting cut of meat. Golai hagan suni is a vegetable medley with kale, a version of broccoli called spigarello, fried sunchokes, coconut, and a dash of turmeric — it was like a delicate, Thai-tinged version of creamed spinach. And the red rice, a clear descendent of Mexican/Spanish influence, came garnished with a small mountain of crisp/fatty braised pork belly.
The five-course tasting menu offered a small parade of intriguing items that showed Naputi's classical training and culinary dexterity. An oyster was served with a bit of coconut vinegar, which played off the mollusk's natural brininess. Then there was a bit of ahi tuna crusted with toasted rice and achiote pepper, with pickled sea beans and wasabi — a little jaunt to Asia. There was intensely beefy, rich oxtail in coconut broth, accompanied by soft glass noodles and smoky potatoes. Dessert brought a nice bite of coconut ice cream paired with young coconut tapioca — a fitting end to the meal.
Prubechu suffers from many of the same problems that plagued its predecessor, Roxy's Cafe, wherein chef Gimenez served affordable tasting menus in a former smoothie shop. The location doesn't have a vent hood or really a proper kitchen. Naputi and Camocho do what they can with a series of induction burners, but the lack of infrastructure does have its drawbacks — like on one evening when the smoky room had to be ventilated with an open door onto Mission Street and a chilly S.F. night.
I left the restaurant impressed with the pair's obvious love for the food and culture of their home country, but a bit confused by what had just transpired in my mouth. Because the flavors of the meal were literally all over the map, it was hard to find a point of reference in all of it. That's okay. Sometimes we eat out to be comforted and reassured; sometimes we want to be transported to somewhere new and exotic. Chamorro food may be too different to become the culinary world's Next Big Thing, but considering that residents of Guam are also United States citizens, trying their food seems at least like the neighborly thing to do.