Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen

There are certain foods, like yuca and taro, that I sometimes get really random cravings for.  Something about the starchiness just calls out to me, in a way that no potato ever can.

I've tried yuca fries at a few places, but I haven't been impressed, like the greasy, starchy, poorly cooked ones at Destino, or the better, but still not memorable, ones from Limón.  Thus, my great yuca fries quest, like so many of my quests, continues.

This time, rather than Peruvian, I went for a Venezuelan rendition, and headed to Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen, in the Mission.  They have two other locations as well, one in the Castro, and one up in Napa.  I think the Mission one is the original, and although I hadn't ever been in, I've seen it from across the street while waiting, waiting, and waiting at Little Star.

As you can probably guess from the name, Pica Pica’s signature dish is arepas, but I had eyes only for the yuca fries.  (Well, that isn't entirely true, the plantain and taro chips also called out, as did the yuca beignets for dessert).  They had a few other starters, and some salads as well.  Everything is gluten-free, as in, really gluten-free, no chance of contamination, if that matters to you.

I placed my order through eat24 when I was a few blocks away, and then swung in to pick my order up.  I had a very short wait, which I expected, as I intentionally placed my order when I was too close, since I wanted to guarantee that they'd be hot and fresh, not sitting around waiting for me.  During my brief wait, I took in the surroundings.

The first thing I noticed?  The sign proclaiming that they'd been featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.  Not exactly a selling point for me, but I also knew Yelpers love the place (although, hmm, also not really a selling point!).

Pica Pica is a casual establishment, if I hadn't already ordered in advance, I'd order at a register, and take a number back to my table.  There were a decent number of tables for 2-4, and a counter with seating for singles.  Arranged at each table were silverware, napkins, and some condiments.  Up front near the register was a dispenser with little water glasses, self-serve.  Food was delivered to the table when ready. 

The place seemed fairly busy, as I had to wait in line to receive my order, and there was a constant stream of people arriving.  And as I said, they've expanded to three locations now.  They must be doing something right.  Unfortunately, the yuca fries are not it.
Yuca Fries with Guasacaca Sauce. $4.95.
I'm glad I opened my box before leaving.  It contained the yuca fries, as I expected, and a side of sauce.  The menu had specified different sauces that came with the other sides, but said nothing about the yuca fries.  For me, half the reason I get anything fried is just to have an excuse to try out dipping sauces.  I'm a sauce girl, whether it be dipping sauces or sauces on food, they are often the highlight of a meal for me.  So, sauces matter.

But this sauce looked an awful lot like guacamole.  And I knew that several other dishes, like the plantain and taro chips, come with guasacaca sauce, which is,basically guacamole, but without tomato.  And I'm allergic to avocado.  Very good thing I checked!

I found guasacaca to be a strange sauce to serve with yuca fries, particularly as all the Yelp reviews I had read talked about dipping into sauces.  It turns out, they have 4 house made sauces on each of the tables, but none of those were included in my togo order.  Nor were there little containers available to put them in.  If I were a Yelper, I'd angrily dock them a star for not including sauces, and another for not having it possible to help myself to them.

Anyway, I didn't try the guasacaca obviously, but their website describes it as "avocado, red onions, green peppers, garlic, cilantro, lime and a splash of our secret Pica’pun hot sauce!"  I brought it home for Ojan, who used it as a spread on something else, and he seemed to enjoy it.

But back to the yuca fries.  They were indeed clearly fresh, piping hot.  But they were soooo oily.  So, so oily.  I like fried food, but these honestly seemed like they hadn't been drained at all.  Just touching one left a layer of oil on my fingers that I couldn't wipe off.  I set one gently down on a napkin, and it soaked through instantly.  Minus another star?

The fries also just didn't taste like anything, and had no interesting texture.  They somehow managed to not be very crispy on the outside, and inside was just mush.  No starchiness that I like from yuca fries.  The inside was pretty much indistinguishable, taste-wise, from french fries or mashed potato.

My order contained 8 fries.  Yes, they were large, but 8 fries for $4.95? (And yes, there really were 8.  I realize the photo makes it look like there were 9, but two of them were only halves!).  Too expensive, and way, way too greasy.

I only ate half of them while they were hot, and brought the rest home.  I'm not entirely sure why I did so, as they weren't good even fresh, but ... I hate wasting food, and I was thinking that perhaps I could at least crisp them up in the toaster oven, and perhaps squeeze out some oil while I was at it.  But instead, the oil soaked in.  And ... I decided to just eat them cold.  I know this sounds like a recipe for certain dissatisfaction, but somehow, I actually liked them a lot better this way.  Not that I'd go get them again, but ... much better this way!
Sauces: Pica’chup, Pica'pun, Garlic Aioli, Mojo
As I mentioned, there were 4 sauces on the tables, 3 in squirt bottles, 1 in a glass jar.  Since I couldn't eat the avocado based sauce, and I knew Yelpers loved these sauces, I tried them all out.  Of course, I had to just squirt them all into my box, and very carefully carry it so they wouldn't get everywhere, which only quasi-worked.  I wound up with a pretty big mess.  Again, they lose points for not providing the good sauces WITH my fries.

None of the sauces were labelled, so I tried them all, took notes, and looked them up online later, finding the answers in one of their blog posts describing how when they developed the restaurant.  Apparently the addition of sauces isn't standard in Venezuelan cuisine, but us Americans, used to having sauces, particularly with Mexican cuisine, demanded them.  So, they now provide sauces.

The squirt bottles were really gross, incredibly sticky, even worse than the salsa ones at Nick's Crispy Tacos.  Given how insanely oily the yuca fries are, I understand how everyone's fingers are coated in grease, and that makes the squirt bottles nasty, but ugh.  Really gross.
  • Pica’chup: This is their version of ketchup, described as "smokey".  I thought it tasted mildly like curry, and it reminded me a little of the maggi ketchup from Curry Up Now, although I liked the maggi ketchup more.  The spicing in the Pica'chup was more subtle and mild.  My least favorite of the sauces.
  • Pica'Pun: This is their signature hot sauce, made with habanero.  Since I had no idea what any were, and this one looked like creamy mustard, I was surprised by the spice level.  But it was quite tasty.  It reminded me most of a tartar sauce, as it had flavors sorta like capers or relish in it.  But, a bit spicy. The oil level from the yuca overpowered this sauce, which was unfortunate, as it was quite tasty.  I think it would be particularly fantastic on fried fish.  My favorite of the sauces.
  • Garlic Aioli: This was a very herby, creamy sauce.  It reminded me of boursin cheese actually.  But I think it was garlic aioli, even though I didn't necessarily taste garlic, and it was thicker than a standard aioli.  And uh, a bit cheesy. 
  • Mojo: This was actually the spiciest one to me, and it was very runny, so basically got everywhere in my box.  Described as a "spicy pickled sauce (carrots, onions, garlic)".   I didn't necessarily pick up on any particular flavor, but it was spicy, and added some depth to the creamy white sauce.
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