Only 24 people get to eat at this San Francisco restaurant each night

0 24

Chef Graham Bellefeuille prepares a French apple cake as dinners sit just in front of the open kitchen at Mr. Pollo in the Mission District of San Francisco on Nov. 1, 2023.

Chef Graham Bellefeuille prepares a French apple cake as dinners sit just in front of the open kitchen at Mr. Pollo in the Mission District of San Francisco on Nov. 1, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Tasting menus aren’t known to be affordable, especially in San Francisco. The prix fixe style of dining is usually more commonplace at restaurants hoping to collect Michelin stars or James Beard Awards. Many of the more affordable tasting menus in the city still cost about $100. The more expensive options can lead all the way up to $600.

But how about a tasting menu where each plate averages $11.25? Seems unheard of in San Francisco — almost impossible.

It’s real, though, and it’s at Mr. Pollo — one of San Francisco’s most affordable four-course tasting menus, priced at $45 without drinks.

Located at 2823 Mission St., directly across from the 24th Street BART station, Mr. Pollo is easy to miss. The facade is painted all black, and the windows are covered with black curtains — you can’t see inside. Jutting out from above the front door, there is a sign with the original Mr. Pollo logo, which still says “Como- a ti-te-gusta, 100% sabor Latino” in red lettering on one side, with the newer design featuring big block “MR” letters and a black chicken with the word “pollo” in red on the other. Aside from that, you might walk past and think that the restaurant is closed, or even, “What is this place?”

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Top left clockwise: The original sign for Mr. Pollo, facing north on Mission Street; chef Graham Bellefeuille prepares a dish; the new Mr Pollo sign, by local artist Sean FN Reilly, facing south on Mission Street; chef Bellefeuille prepares tomatoes for a salad.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
Top left clockwise: The original sign for Mr. Pollo, facing north on Mission Street; chef Graham Bellefeuille prepares a dish; the new Mr Pollo sign, by local artist Sean FN Reilly, facing south on Mission Street; chef Bellefeuille prepares tomatoes for a salad.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Despite its unassuming nature, co-owners Will McGuire and chef Graham Bellefeuille are serving up seasonally focused, quality food cooked with expert techniques you might normally find at restaurants with a higher price point. Think heirloom tomatoes over labneh and topped with arugula, toasted almonds and a black sesame dressing, or myrtle-roasted pork tenderloin over cinnamon and cardamom-cooked bulgur with a roasted slice of quince, lollipop kale and a quince aioli. The best part, perhaps, is that the menu changes almost weekly, and Bellefeuille’s creativity shines in a different form every seven days or so.

“The higher up you go in most restaurants, the more it becomes about managing people,” Bellefeuille told SFGATE, referring to the two-person operation. “In this situation, I really get to have my hands on the food all the time.”

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The history of Mr. Pollo is quite quirky. It used to be a fast food Colombian restaurant, serving arepas and rotisserie chicken. But in 2010, founding chef Manny Torres Gimenez did a 180-degree flip and turned it into a prix fixe menu featuring up-and-coming chefs that have worked in critically acclaimed restaurants. Previous chefs who have helmed the tiny, 12-seat space include Shawn Naputi of San Francisco Guamanian restaurant Prubechu and Jonny Becklund, who now runs his own restaurant in Bend, Oregon, called Dear Irene. Samir Mogannam, owner of Beit Rima, also used to work at Mr. Pollo, though with front-of-house duties.

A tomato salad with labneh, arugula, toasted almonds and a black sesame dressing is the first course for dinner at Mr. Pollo in the Mission District of San Francisco on Nov. 1, 2023.

A tomato salad with labneh, arugula, toasted almonds and a black sesame dressing is the first course for dinner at Mr. Pollo in the Mission District of San Francisco on Nov. 1, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

McGuire’s path to Mr. Pollo is almost as odd as finding a high-quality restaurant inside an approximately 400-square-foot space. Hailing from New London, Connecticut, McGuire never envisioned himself operating a restaurant as a career. The tall, lanky, bearded general manager is usually wearing shorts and a yellow, Standard Deviant Brewery T-shirt that matches his blonde hair. But, and as luck would have it, his first roommate in San Francisco was Mr. Pollo’s founder, Gimenez. McGuire, an avid Red Sox fan, would often do maintenance work around the restaurant for the first two years of its existence, while also coaching cross country running. It wasn’t until 2012 that he became full-time front-of-house manager, where he still diligently tells diners that despite being a tasting menu, which comes with connotations of hoity-toity manners, you can and should pick up the arepa course with your hands.

While different chefs have passed through the tiny kitchen, which takes up about half of the entire interior, one thing has remained the same since its inception — the arepa. Gimenez started the tradition of serving a chicken arepa as the second of four courses to honor the history of Mr. Pollo. Under Bellefeuille, who worked with Chris Cosentino, cooked at Contigo for five and a half years before it closed and even ran a “Game of Thrones”-style dinner series, the arepa definitely remains on the menu, though patrons get to experience a more adventurous version, such as hen of the woods mushrooms with garlic-parsley salsa, pickled onions, Gwen avocados, cotija cheese and cilantro-lime dressing.

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“I never formally learned how to cook arepas,” Bellefeuille said while flipping the circular cornmeal cakes on a recent Wednesday night. “I called up Jonny (the previous chef) and he talked me through it, but it was mostly trial and error.”

Left to right, general manager Will McGuire and chef Graham Bellefeuille pose for a photo outside their restaurant, Mr. Pollo, in the Mission District of San Francisco on Nov. 1, 2023.

Left to right, general manager Will McGuire and chef Graham Bellefeuille pose for a photo outside their restaurant, Mr. Pollo, in the Mission District of San Francisco on Nov. 1, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Bellefeuille, who was born in Sonoma and attended the California Culinary Academy, is a self-described student of culinary history. (He is also a Red Sox fan, which is one of the reasons McGuire and he hit it off so quickly.) Above the sink, toward the back of the restaurant, there are cookbooks with recipes from the 16th and 17th centuries. Bellefeuille said he will often take recipes from those books and serve them at Mr. Pollo.

“Why wouldn’t the food from that time be good?” Bellefeuille asked. “They still wanted their food to taste good.”

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At a recent dinner, after the tomato salad appetizer and hen of the woods mushroom arepa, the main course was a myrtle-roasted pork tenderloin. When it came out of the oven, the tantalizing smell of earthy myrtle, preserved lemon and salt emanated throughout the room. There was a faint crackle of the crispy skin popping, which could only be heard if you were sitting at the chef’s counter, about 8 feet from the oven. Bellefeuille sliced the porchetta-like loin into thick medallions and plated them over cinnamon and cardamom-infused bulgur. The star course of the night, the pork was tender and herby, which contrasted nicely with the sweetness from the roasted quince, which was almost candied, and the quince aioli, which brought out the faint spiciness of the fruit. It’s a true wonder that this course, on its own, cost just $11.25.

The main course was almost outdone by the dessert course, a French apple cake with candied pecans and homemade whipped cream. The Winesap apples were melt-in-your-mouth soft and the cake batter crumbled delicately onto the plate with each forking. Between vigorous stirs of the whipped cream in a large mixing bowl, Bellefeuille took sips of water from his renaissance fair drinking horn. He smiled while playfully flexing his bicep, showed off his cup for the camera and said, “This arm was made from whipping cream.”

So how does a tiny restaurant with food that rivals more expensive, critically acclaimed restaurants do it? It’s not low rent, McGuire said — that is definitely still “super high.”

General manager Will McGuire talks with two customers at Mr. Pollo in the Mission District of San Francisco on Nov. 1, 2023.

General manager Will McGuire talks with two customers at Mr. Pollo in the Mission District of San Francisco on Nov. 1, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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“I think one of the reasons why we are unlike other restaurants and we are able to do it this way is because we don’t have employees,” he explained. “Another is we don’t have a lot of food waste. We know we’re getting 24 people a night and Graham plans for that and shops for that. We don’t have extra fish laying around waiting to be ordered but never does.”

It sounds like a recipe for success, though Bellefeuille does wish there were a few extra feet for him to walk around between the plating station and the oven. The two owners don’t see a need to change anything, either. The streamlined approach of 24 guests per night, 12 at 6 p.m. and another dozen at 8 p.m., leaves both McGuire and Bellefeuille satisfied.

“It’s not like we need that many people,” McGuire said. “Luckily, our demand is higher than our capacity. We’re full every night.”

Chef Graham Bellefeuille, upper left, prepares a myrtle-roasted pork loin, upper right, with preserved lemon and olive oil over bulgur cooked with cinnamon and cardamom and served with lollipop kale and a roasted slice of quince; Bellefeuille prepares a mushroom arepa at Mr. Pollo, below.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
Chef Graham Bellefeuille, upper left, prepares a myrtle-roasted pork loin, upper right, with preserved lemon and olive oil over bulgur cooked with cinnamon and cardamom and served with lollipop kale and a roasted slice of quince; Bellefeuille prepares a mushroom arepa at Mr. Pollo, below.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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“We really have no desire to change. Just kind of stay the course because people seem to like it,” Bellefeuille added. “So as long as that continues, then we’re good.”

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