| Roger M. Shakes Up The Maya World
By George McConnell Jul 16, 2007
Roger M., which stands for Magaña in case you didn’t know, says he has over 300 recipes in his database for his new restaurant, Popul Vuh. This is probably not an exaggeration because he serves Yucatecan cuisine. That’s from the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, in case you didn’t know, and if you know your history, you know it dates back to the Mayas — or at least 300 AD — so they’ve been cooking there a long time. Popul Vuh is a book called the bible of the Mayas, and it contains many of their ancient legends, says Roger.
Carlos Luis Valenzuela, Delmy Chable, Virginia Sanchez,
and Gabriela Perez work in Popol Vuh's kitchen.
Photo: Jennifer Pickens
Popul Vuh opened on February 10. It’s two blocks from the ever-bustling intersection of 16th and Mission, and adjacent to San Francisco Jeep and Chrysler. This makes it very convenient if you want to celebrate your purchase of a new car or maybe just take a break from haggling with the dealer with a tasty dish of Ensalada de Deshebrada, Escabeche de Pavo or Cochinita Pibil, or maybe a couple of Panuchos, which are some of the selections at Roger’s place.
The space was formerly occupied by a taqueria. But Roger, who was a painter at one time, used the color coordinating skills he picked up on that job and “detacqueriaed” it with fire red and olive yellow walls and antique mirrors. The combination gives it a sultry and mysterious air and produces an optical illusion.
It’s like being in two rooms at the same time, he says.
Popul Vuh is Roger’s first restaurant, but he’s no novice to the restaurant world. He knows a thing or two or three about the industry. He – along with his staff of eight - brings a noticeable professional touch to his new venture. Prior to opening Popul Vuh, he worked in management for a large hotel chain until he decided it was, well, you know, time for his own place. As part of his training at the hotel, he attended the California Culinary Academy, so he knows food, he says.
The food served at Popul Vuh might be similar to standard Mexican fare, but because it’s Yucatecan cuisine, it has its own distinct variations.
“It’s infused with a European touch, it’s a blend of French and Spanish and indigenous Maya,” said Roger, who knows a thing or two about Maya culture, too.
He grew up, after all, in Oxkutzcab, a city in Yucatán, which, if you recall, is where the Mayas used to stomp way back when they were stomping.
“It was a small town when I lived there, but it’s grown quite a bit since I left. It’s called the “Orange City” because of all the orange trees there,” Roger said.
“Merida, the capital, is about an hour away and it’s not far from the Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá,” he said.
Some of the recipes in Roger’s database come from his dear, sweet grandma, who used to be sort of like the town chef, he says.
“She used to cook for family parties and a little bit of her is in here, its grandma’s cooking,” he said.
His menu changes every day — he’s got over 300 recipes, remember? — but there’s no need to worry.
“We cook to order,” he said.
In addition, Roger says the tortillas at Polul Vuh are made fresh each day, too.
“We make about 1500 tortillas every day. Each tortilla takes about 2.5 minutes,” he said.
On the other side of the Yucatán peninsula, just down the road from Roger’s hometown, is that muy grande resort, Cancún. That fact really has nothing to do with this story, but if you’re ever there, you can, if you’re so inclined, toast the Mayas and maybe even Roger with a tall glass of balché, which is an old Maya drink made with — can you believe this: tree bark — while you’re living la vida loca and doing whatever, whatever, whatever down in old — and relentlessly sunny — Yucatán.
Roger bills Popul Vuh as offering Mexico’s Southeast Cuisine with a new face.
“We do not use lard, we do not use cheese, and we do not use butter and everything is cooked in its own juices, and we get our spices direct from Yucatán,” he said.
“It’s Maya flavor California style — ancient cuisine with a modern touch,” said Roger.
Popul Vuh is located at 2886 16th Street, between Mission and South Van Ness. They are open from 10-9 every day. Call 415-558-1583 for more information.
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