San Francisco’s only Chamorro Restaurant Persists Amid Pandemic

 

SAN FRANCISCO – At Prubechu’, on the corner of 18th and Mission booming reggae music, bursts of laughter, and a sunny outdoor patio make diners feel as if they’re in the Pacific.

When the music fades and sounds of bustling city traffic take over, general manager Shawn Camacho is filled with pride to bring a piece of his Guamanian home to the Bay Area.

Smoked, charred, coconut, salty, and sour flavors paired with aromatic ingredients, like onions and garlic, are key elements in a Chamorro dish. Chamorros are the indigenous people of Guam and the Northern Marianas.

Barbecue ribs, chicken, and brisket are at the center of their fiesta plates along with traditional dishes like chicken kelaguen, which is influenced by Spanish ceviche, and a spicy fina’dene dipping sauce that goes with every plate.

Camacho said what he ate as a child growing up on Guam is what customers find on the menu. “[Prubechu’] gave us a platform to present Chamorro food…in a city that’s looking for something new,” he said. He added that Prubechu’ means “thank you.”

Prubechu’s culinary ambitions and business, like many others, have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Camacho says he considers being able to open his doors a blessing he tries to remember every day.

Meanwhile, at least 370 restaurants have permanently closed in the Bay Area because of financial hardship exacerbated by COVID-19 guidelines, according to a recent report by Yelp. The report found that 7.3 restaurants permanently closed per 1,000 in S.F. That number is expected to grow as the state considers a lockdown and more counties move into more stringent tiers.

Fortunately for Prubechu’, Camacho said that their nine staff are able to serve up to 65 people at once at their new location.

Their landlord raised the rent at their previous location in 2018, which ultimately led them to close their doors for one year and instead turn to pop-up venues and festivals to showcase their home-islands cuisine. In December 2019, they opened their current location with determination to be a staple in the city.

The journey to their new location wasn’t ready-made. Camacho received a call in 2014 from his longtime friend from Guam Shawn Naputi, who is a chef. “He called me, and he said, ‘Hey man, I got an opportunity [to start a restaurant],’ and honestly that’s all I needed to hear,” Camacho said. “The rest is history. Like I quit my job that day.”

Prubechu’ opened with less than $10,000. At the very beginning, Camacho stayed in town to prepare the physical location for its opening while Na’puti traveled back to Guam to gather ingredients and recipes.

As business began to pick up and after receiving a positive review in the S.F. Chronicle, COVID-19 guidelines forced a temporary closure. But their staff still got to work with World Kitchen Central, a non-profit and NGO that provides meals in disasters, in S.F.and help feed vulnerable communities — making nearly 400 meals a day.

They opened their doors the first day the city eased restrictions. Their outdoor patio proved to be prime for dining during pandemic times. “We weren’t prepared to open our doors, but we went to the restaurant supply store, we got all the milk crates and just built chairs and tables out of that. And our community just came out for us and we were packed the first day,” Camacho said.

They hope to tell an indigenous story with each plate served.

“Chamorro food is a natural mix outside influences [due to] colonialism,” he said. “[It’s] an Island-style cuisine with a Spanish influence, a big-time Asian influence, but it’s really hard to describe in a few words. You really got to come and try it for yourself.”

Guam has seen multiple waves of foreign occupation by Spain, Japan, Germany, and the United States. As a result, the dishes at Prubechu’ carry some familiarities with other cultures that customers may experience. Guam is an unincorporated U.S. territory in the Western Pacific.

“I was so, so excited to discover this place…I could not believe that there was a Guamanian restaurant in S.F.,” Alice Chuang, a customer who was born on Guam, said. “I’m super excited this place exists and exposes more people to Chamorro food. I recommend everyone to try it out!”

“I like that they are more than a restaurant. They’re a friendly community that encapsulates the vibe of Chamorro culture and I appreciate them bringing that here,” Chuang added. “I definitely do want to see more Chamorro food in the Bay and just in the [U.S.] in general. I think it’s kind of an undiscovered cuisine.”

Another customer, Kalen Gutierrez, who is Chamorro and was visiting from Seattle, said that Prubechu’ provides an up-scale, creative, and innovative taste. “They have the best Chamorro food I have had,” she said. “I almost felt like I was eating in Guam because of the hot weather, island music, and Chamorro food.”

She added, “I really wish I could come here more because I love the vibes and the food, and of course the people running the place, but Seattle is pretty far from San Francisco.”

While Prubechu’s mission to put Chamorro food on the map is center-table for its owners, Camacho said “hospitality and service is a core value inside of us and a lot of times we are being stretched real thin [and] it hurts us because we want to give the best hospitality as possible.”

Ultimately, even amid the pandemic, they hope flavors stir up larger conversations about their homeland. “We just got through an election and people [on Guam] still can’t vote for president and it’s outrageous, right?” Camacho remarked. “And now, this plate of food can kickstart a conversation. It might not make a change today, but it gets people thinking. If we could do that, why not?”