Prubechu’s Rebirth In The Mission

Shawn Camacho and Shawn Naputi reopen their Chamorro restaurant Prubechu at the intersection of culinary politics and community ownership.

No area in San Francisco contains a broader cross-section of restaurants and food businesses than Mission Street between 18th and 19th streets, especially if you take in the fullness of both intersections. There’s Taqueria Cancun, Duc Loi Supermarket with its banh mi station, and the nine seats at Burmese lunch counter Yamo, and up at the four-dollar sign level there’s supper sensation Lazy Bear. In between is a vast middle ground: the divey Beauty Bar, the weekend-only Cajun brunch spot Alba Ray’s, the upscale plant-based Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre. National trendsetter Mission Chinese Food is there, next to the smash burgers at Wes Burger N’ More and across the street from brand-new Tijuana brewery/restaurant Lupulandia.

Also on that block was Commonwealth, chef Jason Fox’s well-regarded New American endeavor that enjoyed a nine-year run before it closed over the summer. Having earned a Michelin star in 2016 — a recognition Fox and his team retained until the end — it was part of a wave of sustained international attention to the Mission both as a dining destination and as a contested site of community ownership.

The question of who the Mission belongs to has permeated every discussion since the original proposal to lay BART tracks beneath its main artery, but over the last five years in particular, it has come to stand in as a microcosm for San Francisco’s existential struggles. Several blocks to the south, a pair of Guamanian natives with the same first name may have come up with a potential answer.

Shawn Naputi (the chef) and Shawn Camacho (the front-of-house guy) opened Prubechu as a pop-up inside Roxy’s Cafe on Mission Street between 24th and 25th streets in early 2014. Its name means “good appetite” in Chamorro, is a cognate with “provecho” — and it was as barebones as it could be.

“We were subleasing from the guy, which presented a whole bunch of problems,” Camacho says. “We popped up for a couple days. He said, ‘Come over and do your thing,” and then said ‘You can stay permanently.’ That was in February 2014. We had nothing on the walls. It was pretty sparse, no fancy lights, literally just a couple of tables and food.”

The Shawns and their partners did everything themselves, from installing lights to sewing curtains for the windows. Without adequate hookups, they cooked on an electric fryer and three induction burners (with a backup fourth in case something went wrong). They had a couple reach-in fridges and a reach-in freezer, but without walk-ins, space was perpetually at a premium.

“It was maxed-out every day,” Camacho remembers. “We didn’t have any space in there back then.”

The pop-up thrived and eventually took over 2847 Mission St., serving omnivore-friendly dishes like Golai Hagan Suni (a plate of spigarello, eggplant, sunchoke, turmeric, and coconut) for more than four years. But as with so many other wonderful institutions, the landlord wanted more money. So after a protracted struggle Camacho and Naputi had to close up in September 2018 and return to their pop-up roots for more than a year. There was a public announcement about taking over the space belonging to Aster — a Daniel Patterson Group project that shuttered, and another upscale Mission restaurant with a Michelin star to its name — but that came to nothing. Then Commonwealth closed, opening up an opportunity for a plucky endeavor by two guys serving food from a little-known outlying American territory to leapfrog back to the forefront. They took it.

The menu hangs on the front door at Prubechu at 2224 Mission St. on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

“Nobody knows where Guam is,” Naputi says, referring to an island that nonetheless refers to itself as “Where America’s Day Begins.”

It would be hard to locate on an unlabeled map, it’s true. Guam has only 162,000 people, American citizens by birth. In some ways, it’s like a normal U.S. state, albeit one farther west from Hawaii than Hawaii is from here, and with roughly the same population as Santa Rosa. The island elects its own governor, and leans Democratic, although votes for president amount to a straw poll. Its national basketball team punches above its weight. There are at least five McDonald’s, but only one Burger King and no Starbucks.

History runs deep. People lived on Guam for 3,500 years before Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521. Chamorro is spoken there and in the nearby Northern Mariana Islands — a separate U.S. territory — and it bears Spanish, Japanese, and German influences that reflect the island’s colonial history. Most fluent speakers are older. Ecologically, contact with the outside world has yielded mixed results at best. The flightless ko’ko’ bird, or Guam rail, is now critically endangered. Invasive brown tree snakes have wrecked Guam’s forests, but the feral hogs that destroy property on the island also disperse seeds, helping trees regenerate.

For Prubechu, the island’s relative anonymity has an upside and a downside. A remote waystation ceded to the U.S. by Spain in 1898 — and briefly occupied by Imperial Japan during World War II — Guam has seldom been able to set the terms of its own destiny.

But that also means that Naputi and Camacho have largely been able to set the terms of Guamanian/Chamorro cooking in San Francisco. After its year-plus gap between brick-and-mortar locations, Prubechu reopened on Dec. 3 after a friends-and-family evening the night before.

“It was wild,” Camacho says. “We did 82 covers and two turns.”

The window between Commonwealth’s closure and Prubechu’s reopening was short, barely a few months. Nonetheless, Camacho and Naputi redid the floor and reconfigured the entire layout.

“It was more than we thought,” he admits. “But everybody thinks that. We also moved the bathroom, as Commonwealth had a small station and two non-ADA-compliant [restrooms] past the dish pit, which we didn’t think was ideal for our guests. We got up to code. There was a walk-in that was in major disrepair, so we put in a brand new one. That’s a major upgrade.”

But Commonwealth’s kitchen was sensibly laid out, with “an amazing path.” That, combined with new appliances — two additional refrigerators, a plancha, and an oven Camacho says is nearly as good as a top-of-the-line Rational Combi — makes for a significant streamlining of the operation. In essence, they don’t have to leave for three hours every day to go shopping around town, and Camacho says the equipment is like having an extra cook in the kitchen.

They do have an extra human cook, too: Manfred Wrembel, a San Francisco veteran who ran Huxley in the Tendernob for a few years, and who has worked at the venerable German restaurant Schroeder’s as well as Chris Cosentino’s Incanto and Cockscomb. While Camacho lionizes Wrembel as a “chef’s chef,” it was Prubechu’s design firm that really got the ball rolling.

“D-Scheme Studio in SoMa — once we hooked up with them, they went at a breakneck speed,” Camacho says. “Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to open. We only signed the lease in September!”

The result is an aesthetically restrained dining room with Guamanian accents, like a statue of a ko’ko’ and some green turf. Dominated by two walls of windows as it is, minimalism was the only practical route, so it lacks a highly charged vibe like the Hawaiian/Salesforce decor at Michael Mina’s Trailblazer Tavern. Tiki overload it most certainly is not.

In a story about its opening, Mission Local referred to Commonwealth’s “$50 plates” that became “an epicenter of the city’s gentry.”

Clearly, Camacho and Naputi do not want to acquire a similar reputation, with its connotation — however fair or unfair — of unwelcomeness toward a historically working-class population. But Prubechu’s six-year history of starting out small, serving food that addresses colonialism head-on, getting the boot, then reopening in a space associated with the culinary elite can’t be overlooked. And the crux of that same Mission Local article deals with a minor act of desecration: the painting-over of the retro-bizarre Hunt’s Quality Donuts mural that had long been visible to passing traffic on Mission Street, especially prominent because the parcel next to Prubechu is a parking lot.

Hunt’s, as longtime Mission residents may remember, was a sort of maelstrom of “25-hour-a-day” vice and petty crime. Its sign may have been on the side of what is now Prubechu, but the actual doughnut shop was two blocks south, on the corner of 20th Street. (FoundSF’s immeasurably deep dive on Hunt’s is a must-read chronicle that ties together punk-rock doughnut zinesters, Latinx teens framed for the killing of a police officer, and Mayor Joseph Alioto, all at the “Bermuda Triangle of Mission real estate.”)

Camacho was nonplussed at the prospect of painting over this last trace of a long-gone Mission, but it had gotten marred.

“Somebody went up on the roof and tagged the shed upstairs,” he says. “We found a guy that was willing to redo it, but the cost was prohibitive. In order to make it look good, he would have to do the whole thing — and we just didn’t have the budget for that.

“The neighborhood hates change,” he adds, “and we knew there was going to be a bit of backlash.”

However, most of the reception was positive, largely because Prubechu has been a survivor of displacement — not an engine of it.

“We have regulars, people saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re back!’ ” Camacho says. “We haven’t gotten any concerns about gentrification. The fact that the cuisine is so different brings another cultural aspect that a taqueria might miss or that a California restaurant might miss. We try to relate to people that we’re not just some Cheesecake Factory moving into the neighborhood. We’ve been here for years, we shop locally, all the merchants around here know us. Everybody brought us flowers to congratulate us when we opened.”

Shopping locally for ingredients for the cuisine of a small island is easier than it was, he adds, after five years of relationship-building and the capacity to create an account with a fish vendor rather than running out for it daily for want of room.

Civic Center farmers market is Naputi’s ace-in-the-hole. (This is hardly a rare opinion among chefs in this town.)

“They have everything we need: Chinese long beans, bitter melons, wing beans,” he says.

The latter, known in Guam as sigidayas, go into Prubechu’s motsiyas, a preparation of chicken sausage steamed in banana leaves. They’re hard to acquire in California because cold nights in the Central Valley make tropical legumes a challenge to grow, but Naputi has two farmers in Fresno he works with, plus others at Daly City’s farmers market. Other staples, like a “super-purple, fluorescent yam” aren’t yet available.

Evocative consumer products from one’s far-off childhood are a near-universal experience, and for many Guamanians, it’s Chamorro Chip Cookies, something everyone brings back.

“They’re almost the size of my thumbnail, and they’re just so easy to eat. You know how small Cookie Crisps are? They’re just like that, maybe a little bit bigger, super-buttery, super-flaky, and just so nostalgic. And it’s such a nice gift to go to Guam and bring that back.”

Nostalgia arrives at Prubechu with the check, inside a can of Yours brand lemon powder, something that’s just as likely to punch a Chamorro native in the solar plexus.

“It’s made in Japan and it’s found everywhere in Guam,” Naputi says. “Everyone from Guam kind of requests that, too.”

The physical constraints at Prubechu’s first location were what helped build its reputation, forcing Naputi to come up with workarounds and invent techniques to keep everything fresh longer. He cured a lot of dishes with sugar, salt, and a light smoke, he says, and did a lot of fermentation.

“For four years, we just did whatever the hell we wanted,” Camacho remembers. “If we wanted a party, we had a party. If we wanted a pig, we had a pig. That resonates with a lot of people, and the fact that we’re doing our food on our terms in a way that not only the industry can relate to but also guests has a lot to do with it. We were full of industry love on [opening day].”

The decor at Prubechu (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

In the time since Prubechu debuted, many of the dishes evolved, none more so than the motsiyas, sausages that are traditionally stuffed in chicken necks.

“But we couldn’t get chicken neck, so we started wrapping them in banana leaves,” Naputi says. “That’s how the motsiyas grew and became an adult. I remember posting it on our Instagram, the different grinds we put in. First we did it in the Robo-Coup, but I didn’t like the texture. Finally, we came up with a solution of two different grinds, a large and a fine, and then just adding more fat. We figured out coconut milk wasn’t as much fat and as much an absorbing element as an egg, which is more of a binder. Traditionally, there’s no egg, but we started adding egg.”

Guam has plenty of chickens, but there are no cows. That means no dairy industry, so the core of Naputi’s pantry is coconut milk.

“Milk wasn’t a thing for us growing up,” he says. “It was grandma making coconut milk. We use it for everything from braising to poaching, savory to desserts. Steaming, we use it like a bath — you want a hot bath or a nice relaxing bath?”

The à la carte menu is full of cosmopolitan treasures, from an empanada stuffed with mushrooms, achiote paste, and Parmesan, to a lightly fried whole snapper that doesn’t need any sauce because it’s already slathered in two vinegary kinds of fina’denne’, more or less the Guamanian national condiment.

Commonwealth was known for its tasting menu, which might have been pricey by the standards of Mission and 18th Street in 2010, but which was among the bigger bargains — relatively speaking — among its peers citywide by the time it closed. Prubechu, too, had a tasting menu to start, a five-dish medley hesitantly priced at $40. That’s gone, replaced by a $55 “fiesta table” that includes sweet rolls with fermented vinegar butter, oysters on the half shell, mesklan katne’ (a meat plate), two kinds of kelaguen (the Guamanian equivalent of ceviche), Guam-style potato salad, and the signature Chamorro condiments, a pepper paste known as donne’ dinanche into which Naputi folds roasted eggplant and fina’denne’, a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, lemon, and onion that he calls Guam’s all-purpose sauce.

“The whole perception of tasting menus is fancy, so we wanted to step back and be more humble,” Naputi says. Fiestas in Guam are village-wide celebrations centered on patron saints, where everyone is invited into everyone’s home. At Prubechu, the idea is to provide the three main flavor profiles — smoked, steamed, and fried — with plenty of twice-cooked pork shoulder.

The standard-bearer is the chicken kelaguen, unique among ceviches because it isn’t seafood. Naputi grills it 80 percent of the way to get a nice char and smoky flavor, then cuts it up and finishes the remaining 20 percent with lemon juice, green onions, and fresh coconut.

“This is all for Guam,” Naputi says.

Without a need to rely on sous-vide preparations, everything at the current Prubechu is à la minute. But rather than lose its essence amid fancy gadgets, Naputi’s kitchen has the freedom to go back to its roots.

“We have all this firepower, and since I have this oven, we can just do everything super-traditional,” he says. “We’re not afraid to show more of who we are. I’m gonna make it taste good and make it soulful. The world is ours.”

“Soulful” is a word that the chef comes back to often. It is, for him, the ultimate praise, meaning something tastes good, stays authentic, provides comfort and a sense of familiarity.

“At an event we did, London Breed was there,” Naputi says. “She’s probably never heard of Guamanian food but we gave her chicken kelaguen and red rice, super-simple and so nostalgic, and she just said it straight-up: ‘This is so soulful!’ And she never even had our food! That was the eye-opener, for someone at her level to say that.”

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