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In San Francisco, gourmet meals at hole-in-the-wall prices

PHOTO BY BONNIE TSUI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE The tiny kitchen at Mr. Pollo produces dishes like the halibut collar with white corn, zucchini, and orange and black roe.
PHOTO BY BONNIE TSUI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
The tiny kitchen at Mr. Pollo produces dishes like the halibut collar with white corn, zucchini, and orange and black roe. (Photos By Bonnie Tsui for The Boston Globe)
By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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SAN FRANCISCO - Do you want an amazingly affordable way to eat the food of a chef with a Michelin-star-studded background? Head to the Mission District, on the corner of 24th and Mission streets, a few doors down from McDonald’s and within shouting distance of countless taquerias and burrito joints.

There you will find an underground sensation in Mr. Pollo, a somewhat dingy place with just four tables and a counter that looks like any other hole-in-the-wall in the neighborhood. But this may be the most affordable gourmet restaurant in the United States, with a Venezuelan chef, Manny Torres Gimenez, who has spent time in the best kitchens in the country.

Here, he serves an ever-changing, four-course tasting menu of South American specialties made from market-fresh ingredients - all for $20. (It used to be $15, but prices just went up. It is, of course, still a deal.) Over the last year and a half, since Gimenez took over the restaurant space from a local woman who specialized in arepas, he has slowly evolved his menu, begun to serve dinner six nights a week, and taken on additional staff. He has also kept the arepas, and the original yellow and red sign: “MR. POLLO: COMO A TI - TE - GUSTA, 100% SABOR LATINO.’’

Since my husband, Matt, and I live in the neighborhood, we have been lucky enough to sample the goods on a handful of occasions. On our first visit, the tasting menu was a meticulously presented lineup of poached lobster in broth, grilled baby octopus with delicate beets, sliced steak with pureed potatoes, and a goat stew with farmers’ market vegetables, all served by Gimenez himself, working solo (and cleaning up between courses).

We also ordered Colombian-style arepas, delicately sweet white corn cakes filled with cheese and browned to perfection. Gimenez also makes Venezuelan-style arepas - which are larger and filled with meat, sandwich-style - as well as empanadas, cachapas, and sides of rice, beans, and sweet plantains. But the cheese arepa is, hands-down, the best. Served steaming hot, it has a gooey, chewy sweetness that transcends its simple ingredients. At $2.50, it’s also the cheapest thing on the menu.

A line forms at opening, and for good reason: Gimenez hails from the kitchens of SPQR, Quince, and Coi, and has even worked a stint at the French Laundry. It’s an outrageous deal for the experience, especially since you can carry in your own beer and wine; Mr. Pollo will supply the glasses. For dinner service, bring a bottle of wine and be prepared to wait, as the staff and space are small. Hours at the self-described “anti-restaurant’’ can be hit or miss, but are becoming more reliable.

Mr. Pollo’s singular accomplishment is being a neighborhood place where the average Joe can get an exceptional multi-course meal of the type that is normally served in a white-tablecloth establishment at an exorbitant price point.

“My idea is to have fine dining for hard-working people,’’ Gimenez said. “You’ll find the same exact thing I’m serving for $85 at another restaurant.’’ Here, he laughed. “But I try to break every rule.’’

On another evening, Gimenez was off-duty and his able lieutenant, Shawn Naputi, was in charge of the kitchen. Naputi is an alumnus of Incanto, the restaurant by Food Network star Chris Cosentino that celebrates offal. Naputi considers Cosentino his mentor, and his five-year tenure working at the restaurant as his “high school.’’

Naputi thoroughly enjoys his time with Gimenez in Mr. Pollo’s tiny kitchen. “It’s a really cool camaraderie,’’ he said, prepping the day’s vegetables and frying up four cheese arepas on the sizzling griddle.

On that visit, we brought friends and ordered everything on the menu. We ended up with a farmers’ market salad of beets, strawberries, peppery watercress, and smoked Mexican cotija, all sprinkled with black Hawaiian lava salt. It was a glorious celebration of summer.

The prix-fixe menu that evening included a crispy halibut collar with sweet white corn, zucchini, and orange and black roe, and a grilled ribeye with cauliflower, purple potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. The portions were just the right size: certainly more than a taste, but not enough to make us regret the number of courses we had signed up for.

The vibe of the establishment is a little bit rock and roll - Bob Marley and Bon Jovi supplied the loud, sometimes deafening soundtrack - with no-frills metal tables, a couple of red bar stools at the counter, and a gritty floor. But the food, the friendly service, and the price are just right.

If you ask Gimenez how he does it all, he will shrug and say he doesn’t feel the burn at all. “It’s fun,’’ he said with a lopsided grin, and hustled off to plate his next dish.

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.

If You Go

Mr. Pollo
2823 Mission St.
San Francisco
415-375-1185
Lunch Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Sunday, 6-11 pm; closed Monday. Cash only, no reservations.