Translating Family Recipes into Restaurant Dishes 

Arepas, Empanadas, Cachapas, oh my! This trifecta of Venezuelan comfort foods blissfully graces the menu of Pica Pica a local haunt featuring some of the best Venezuelan food SF has to offer.  A beautiful mural splashes the wall with vibrant colors, acting as the backdrop of the outdoor seating area.  Fresh local ingredients, sinfully deliciously cooked meats and perfectly concocted trio of house hot sauces have people lining up and even brought the likes of Guy Fieri’s Diner’s, Drive-in’s and Dives out for some soulful Venezuelan cooking. 

While the menu hosts a myriad of tasty items, Arepas are king. These tasty corn pockets are bursting with goodness. Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen brings the soul of the Venezuelan food scene and shares Gluten free and Non-GMO corn delicacies to the taste buds and stomachs of San Franciscans. You can taste the deep family roots, love, and soul in each bite. Their dishes are handmade daily and with a variety of traditional sides such as the yuca fries, plantain and taro chips, and garlic coconut rice. Pica Pica has definitely earned it’s stripes as some of SF best Venezuelan food.

On a rainy Friday afternoon the EnjoyFresh team huddled into the tiny piece of Venezuela on Valencia to sit with Chef and Owner Adriana Vermut, to learn about what gives this corner spot it’s heart. We also got a first taste of the crispy chicken arepa that hasn’t yet hit the menu. The best part- we’re offering this secret item exclusively to EnjoyFresh members to try now!

So the name Pica Pica, where does that come from?

So picar means to peck, and picante is pica, and actually we were mostly looking for something that would stick in English and we just came up with the name pica pica. Americans can pronounce it and remember it too.  Actually my dad is my business partner and we used my husband as my guinea pig, because he’s American, we tried all these names on him, and he could not pronounce them properly.  He would say, “what’s that name?” and he wouldn’t remember how to say it.  Then we said Pica Pica and he said it perfectly, the next day he said, “what was that name again? Pica Pica right!?”  Then we were like that’s it, that’s the name.

How is it working with your Dad?

Oh it’s awesome.  It’s been 8 years and he lives in Venezuela, so it’s not like we share an office, but it’s nice because we stay connected. We talk every day and talk shop. I’m the only person here, and my whole family is in Venezuela, so it’s a good way of staying connected.  It’s been good because cooking has always been a way for us to connect, ever since I was little.  I would cook with him, he had restaurants when I was growing up, and that was just him and I together. That was how we connected it has been nice that it kind of materialized like that.

Is there another restaurant in Venezuela?

No (so, he’s moved on…) He kind of wants to, but especially right now, it’s kind of crazy, I don’t know if you follow the news in Venezuela, it’s very dangerous…unstable economically, so I figured let’s just stay with what we know.

Tell us a secret about your restaurant, life, and what brought you here?

I’ve been in San Francisco for 12 years now, and this idea came about when I had my first child, my daughter. My Dad and I were like, what now?  What am I going to do, how am I going to stay closer to the family? I wanted to make sure my kids know where I come from, that’s how we came up with the idea of having a restaurant together based around Venezuelan food. We focus just on arepas, so the name Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen, it changed from Maize kitchen, before it was around corn, because arepas and cachapas, we use corn for it, but I think arepas is a better describer for it, because that’s the main focus of the menu.  The secret: We stay true to a lot of the values that are relevant here in San Francisco, and in the Bay Area, but are also traditional. We have handcrafted arepas, we make them ourselves daily, we use local produce, we slow cook our meats, so it’s very artisanal in that sense. That’s very true to tradition, and that’s just keeping it honest.  It’s not very complicated food, I mean it’s new and it’s different, very ethnic and so for some people it is very different, but it’s not trying to be any different from what your mom and your grandma used to make. I think once people taste it they get a sense of you know, this is comfort food, and it’s easy to approach in the palette, it’s not just this esoteric thing, that they cannot even place the ingredients, it’s like okay I get it and I think that that kind of hits home.

What do you love most about your job?

It is a creative job. You can do with it, as much as you want. I think because of that, you have to be really disciplined, that has been a very interesting thing of just trying to be patient and stay the course instead of wanting to change things, when things don’t work. Kind of like, let it be and see how it grows, so the creative part is great. It has been a huge learning experience. A restaurant in particular, you have to deal with: the product that is perishable, clients…that come in and out, the seating and the location and the permitting.  I’m not a chef per se, but I do consider myself a restauranteur, because I know what it takes to pull the permits, do the design work, get all of the kitchen equipment figured out, the menu, the marketing, the HR, the whole package. I think looking back learning how to put that package together, it’s probably the most amazing thing…the most valuable.

Do a lot of the recipes come from your dad?

It’s my Dad and I, so we went back into my kitchen and kind of came up with it. It has taken awhile to figure out how to translate family recipes into restaurant batch sizes, we’re cooking hundreds of pounds of pork and meat on a weekly basis. That’s how my dad cooks, it’s like a pinch here, and a pinch there, and it was like, okay, okay…slow down. Exactly what did you do? It needs to taste exactly the same. That’s always been the fun part, it’s much more disciplined that way. I can’t turn my back because I don’t know what you did, did you put something secret there. That process of translating the family recipe to the restaurant volume was hard, but obviously necessary. 

What drives you crazy about the job?

Everything I described, the recipes, the people, the positives, the food perishables. Because it is an artisanal product, each batch is somehow a little bit different one day from another day. We take pride in handcrafting our food, and sometimes the batches are little bit bigger, and I have clients that say, oh, today they are little bit smaller.  Look we’re not using a machine we are making them.  What drives me crazy really is managing our clients’ expectations, because it’s a new food. Another thing is when people say that it’s not authentic food.  First off, I cannot tell people that it is not authentic because we are not in Venezuela. We are 6,000 miles away. The water tastes different, the corn is different, the avocado is different, we don’t get some of the ingredients, so it cannot be exactly the same, but it is as true to the tradition as possible. I think that, that has been the biggest challenge translating that into something people can appreciate and respect nonetheless. It’s just a crazy business. You think you got it, and the electricity went out, and it’s because you have to change the wires, and that means if you don’t do it right then refrigeration is going to go out, and you’re going to lose product, and it’s just like sometimes you think that everything is going really smoothly, then everything is Oh My God (gasp) the restaurant might explode and set the building on fire. Things like that can happen, but I think that has been the beauty of it. It’s very complex and I understand how all those pieces work together.

What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened?

Well early on, I don’t want to say it’s the craziest thing that happened, more like crazy challenges. When we started our menu in Napa, it was really-really traditional. We had the Arepas, which is the white corn pocket, stuffed with the different things, and then we had the Cachapas, people were asking for the different combinations, like: I want plantains with chicken salad in the sweet corn pocket. I mean, I wouldn’t eat that, but if you want that, that’s what you want do, you can eat it.  I wouldn’t say crazy, it’s just interesting to listen to customers interpret your food, and being open. In terms of crazy stuff dealing with the city, like our neighbors upstairs they just throw random stuff at customers here, just because. It’s just navigating the city.  It’s just what the Mission is. You know if you want to be part of the city you have to be able to live with that.  One crazy thing is, where we are standing right in front of this mural, when we bought this place 5 yrs ago, it was a different mural. And the guy that did it was an LA artist. And the graffiti artists here got really mad at him, because he was taking a wall from them and not local, right? They erased his graffiti and then they did [painted] something. And then the guy came back and he did [painted] something. So we had these 10 days of graffiti work. So every morning, the guy would come and throw the paint on the restaurant window. Can you see all this red paint? It’s because, they were just throwing paint at the other person’s graffiti. If you go on to my blog, I have this title called Graffiti War and I have it all documented. And that is one of those things that has nothing to do with food, but has everything to do with the “thing”, it’s a living thing. Yeah, because people are walking in and they are like…crazy. What can I say? There was another instance that I remember when a disgruntled employee left us a black pigeon with needles on the front entrance.  It required some serious cleansing.  That’s some real Mission stuff right there!

Do you like where Mission is going and how it’s changing?

I don’t know. I think it’s a bigger question about San Francisco, right? And what’s going in San Francisco. I have an issue with the fight of the city not becoming affordable and just pushing people out. And it is going to change the soul of the city. But you know it’s probably cyclical, they can go, and they can come back. What I hate is, the sense that “money can buy anything”, and that is not true. And people feel like, they have a sense of ownership because “they can buy it”, and it’s like “no, you don’t own it”. So, I don’t know, I have mixed feelings about it. But at the same time, sales are up, people are out, they are spending money, people are downloading apps, so it’s very creative, it’s a different creative process, and that’s good. So I have mixed feelings.

What is your cooking philosophy?

Few things, One, I’ve never been attracted to extremely eccentric ingredients, things that are not easy to either find, or that you have to pay too much for, or that people cannot connect to. I like simplicity. I do believe very much in fresh, fresh food being made the fresher the better. I think where your inspiration comes from is really important and what you cook, and people find inspirations in different things. For me, it’s family and my heritage.

What do you want people to take away from your restaurant? And the experience they have here?

I want people to come in and say something different. It’s an ethnic experience. It’s food from Venezuela. It’s also 100% gluten free and naturally so. And it’s so because corn, plantain, yuca, and taro roots (which are core ingredients), those are 100% gluten free. And you can have delicious food without compromising the flavors. And that’s something we feel very strongly about. I want people to come out feeling satisfied and closer to something new that they didn’t know.

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