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The Mission

By Karen Solomon

 
 

 

The Mission is often described as colorful, eclectic, and bustling due to its Latino roots, small artist galleries, bright murals, shops, bars, and of course, its vast array of excellent and cutting-edge eating establishments.

Named after the famed Mission Dolores, the sixth mission of California’s famed and historic 21 missions, the area remains peppered with numerous churches and synagogues. But today the Mission District is perhaps better known as a great place to eat, and the best place in town to get a heavenly burrito—a walloping tortilla-rolled sack of tasty beans, rice, avocado, and meat for under five bucks.

While the burrito remains the classic staple food that powers the thriving arts scene of galleries and theaters like Brava Center for the Arts, Galleria de la Raza, Jack Hanley Gallery, Spanganga, The Marsh, and others, the Mission has also become a fertile breeding ground for artistic displays in food. And while prices have inflated substantially over the three-to-five dollar burrito, so, too has the level of creative culinary engineering and display. Today, the Mission houses nationally celebrated neighborhood restaurants, upscale markets, and a diverse world menu of excellence.

 
     
  But let’s begin with the basics—the very best burrito. Taqueria Cancun is a local legend for rolling and grilling the very best. The other Cancuns on Market street and at the end of Mission street are also popular, but their flagship location on Mission at 19th street serves the freshest and most consistent quality. Without their $3.20 vegetarian burrito the Mission’s residents would starve, and at times the slightly less-than-scrubbed crowd occupying the long lines and long benches of every table indicate as such. The colorful flags on the ceiling are as crisp and refreshing as the house-made agua frescas—refreshing juice and sugar drinks in cantaloupe, strawberry, or almond milk that perfectly accompany the heavy, spicy beans and grilled meats. If the jukebox isn’t blaring Tejuanno music, it’s quite likely that a live Mariachi band will come in to play and pass the hat. This is not fine dining by any stretch, but that doesn’t mean that the perfectly seasoned Mexican comfort food is anything less than five-star.  
 


On your next visit to the Mission—no stomach could handle such heavy doses of starch twice daily—be sure to try the less popular Latin American cousin of the burrito, the pupusa. At their best, a pupusa is a handmade thick corn tortilla stuffed with any combination of refried beans, melted mild cheese, succulent ground pork, and green pepper, grilled to perfection, served with a thyme-heavy, vinegary cabbage slaw. Where can these golden beauties be found? Like the burrito, a decent pupusa can be found on every block, but some of the best come off the griddle at the family-owned Ricas Pupusas on 18th street at Guerrero.

The atmosphere is a pastiche of found chairs, low ceilings, and faded posters of everything from El Salvadorian and Guatemalan tapestries to Mickey Mouse. Service is quick, but the house specialty takes time, the wait made more palatable with a mammoth bowl of soup, and watching the telenovellas—Spanish-language soap operas—on the omnipresent television in the back. Once your pupusas arrive, and they are properly doused with peppery red picante, you’ll be assured that your time was well-spent.

 
 
The food of Latin America is what the Mission is based on, its backbone and its foundation. But as the former barrio has become more gentrified and the streets have seen an increase in foot traffic, the dining options have turned more upper crust. Some, however, keep the neighborhood’s roots firmly in place. Of late, several Nuevo Latino fusion doors have opened, most with some modicum of success, but one of the best to make it work is Limon Rotisserie at 16th and Valencia. The brilliant yellow exterior will show you the way, but the aromatic carnival of topnotch seafood, grilled meats, saffron, tomato, and onion will let you know you’ve arrived. This tiny neighborhood haunt is intimate and always packed with diners hungry for legendary ceviche, paella, and seafood dishes in a punchy light cream. Owner and Chef Martin Castillo lends the menu a Peruvian bend, and he is widely credited with injecting the new wave of Latin fusion into the San Francisco mainstream. Limon is a family affair; Castillo often consults on the menu with his mother and two brothers, who also assist in restaurant management and operations. That warmth resonates throughout. And the ambiance is classy, distinct, memorable, and artistic.
 
 


While Limon and its Nuevo Latino kin are in the royal court of restaurant innovation, the pronounced king of family food done to perfection clearly goes to Delfina. Ask any foodie about the place and their eyes will widen, their jaw will drop, and the raving for Delfina’s simple, exquisitely prepared Italian menu will ignite. The menu changes often in accordance with what’s fresh at its peak, but the quality and consistency of the food and dining experience is always tremendous. Some reliable standards include tender homemade pasta, sublime roast chicken, grilled calamari and white beans, and the flatiron steak and frites.

A husband and wife team account for the establishment’s rippling success—Craig Stoll, trained in Italy, who runs the kitchen, and Anne Spencer, who sees after every detail of the house—both operate and own the arty, industrial space, and see over the educated, attentive staff. Widely celebrated in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, San Francisco Magazine, Food & Wine, and elsewhere, a recent expansion and crowded tables every night indicate that Delfina is still holding court. Reservations are absolutely recommended.

 
 


Next door to Delfina—rounding out what many are calling the "gourmet ghetto" of the Mission—sits Bi-Rite Market, a neighborhood staple. A grocery since the 1940’s, Bi-Rite has been owned by the Mogannam family since 1964. In 1997 the small cornerstone took a turn upward, enriching the quality of its expansive deli, and offering a line of the market’s own bottled sauces and dressings. Today, under the deco sign sits carts of colorful fruit and flowers, and inside gastronomes will find an astounding selection of quality meats, fish, an exquisite array of cheese and wine, and grocery items to stock any gourmand pantry. Praise for this small wonder has appeared everywhere, including Bon Appetite, Conde Nast Traveler, Food and Wine, Wine Spectator, and Sunset Magazine.

While there are no tables or chairs inside the deli, Dolores Park is just a block away, so when the weather is picnic-friendly, this is the premier spot to pack your basket. Take a number if it’s busy. In addition to fine sandwiches, cold roasted Fulton Valley Ranch chicken or Niman Ranch pork roast or chateubriand are always wonderful, and their plentiful side dishes like tortellini salad, roasted beets, and Greek salad beat a bag of potato chips any day. Other house specialties, like robust macaroni and cheese, lasagna, house smoked salmon, and frittatas, are also perfectly done. The amazing cookies, made by the wife of one of the owners, and the creamy fruit-infused bread pudding, are the perfect finish.

 
 


But perhaps you’d rather have a casual lunch indoors with a proper table and silverware. And one, perhaps, that caters to the needs of your vegan or vegetarian friends. Then give one of the Mission’s newest and most delectable cafes, The Lunch Club, just around the corner at Valencia and 16th, a try. Self-proclaimed "California comfort food," here the philosophy of the owners is to be as kind to the earth as they are to the palate. Grilled sandwiches come in numerous mouthwatering vegetarian options, such as grilled Italian vegetables in flavorful olive oil, or exotic mushroom and cheese, and the soup is always a tasty vegan brew. For the carnivorous sort, the chicken-filled empanadas are not to be missed, and the grilled ham and gueyere are outstanding.

But what all diners of every dietary habit will agree on is the pleasure of the casual elegance of the café setting, well-lit with plenty of natural light, and fresh food served inexpensively, no frills, but without the plastic fork. The environment is clean and welcoming, and the servers are as nice as they could possibly be.

The Lunch Club is also a general store, and the tall, dark wooden shelves are stocked with such luxuries as organic chocolate bars, tea and coffee, small farm cheeses, and non-toxic household products. Not only will your meal be sublime, but your soul will be satisfied.

 
 


All this angelic inspiration won’t last forever, and the portions are petite lunch-sized morsels. By dinner, you’ll likely be feeling gluttonous and indulgent. Or at minimum, in need of a cocktail and some other vices, too, such as do-it-yourself s’mores for dessert and some severely fried French fries. If this is your current state, then it will be worth it to fight the crowd at Luna Park, an elegant bistro that promises a bustling young professional crowd, a volume of noise high enough to fill the 25-foot ceilings, and a cocktail and wine list to compliment the basic, but ample food menu of everything from burgers and fries to salmon and rappini.

On a weekend, forget about it. Without a reservation, you’ll be staring into the pet shop window next door for an hour or more. Midweek a more sensible wait will allow you time enough at the bar for a mojito—one of the best in the city—served with a darling plastic toy garnish of a mermaid or a monkey. Take time to enjoy the slick industrial look of tall velvet curtains, low lighting, sharp lines and contours with an artistic twist. Come to see and be seen.

 
 


The in-crowd also frequents another nearby haunt that’s pounding with the crowd on weekends, Tokyo Go-Go. This is one of a handful of sushi/Japanese food places in the area; but it wins, hands down, with the most interesting ambiance, stunning décor, and a shocking price tag to match. The sushi rivals the best in the city, but save your favorite nigiri orders for another time and place. The emphasis here is on creative rolls and handrolls, folding everything from sundried tomatoes to capers to chili aioli into the mix, and your dining experience will be better served by the adventure.

This establishment is the second attempt for owner Ken Lowe, owner of the Marina’s Ace Wasabi, and this effort at super-stylish fish has been equally as successful. The beautiful people come not just for the exquisite sushi and high-priced small plates of miso-crusted fish and veg, but to revel beneath the space-age lighting and soak in the museum-inspired artistry of cool retro tangerine and green accents. The volume is loud and buzzing with youth, likely propelled by the extensive offerings of sake and sake cocktails, cognac and scotch, and more typical spirits.

 
 


Of course, this scene isn’t for everybody. If you like your dining out to be more casual and relaxed, then take a load off at Ti Couz, on 16th between Guerrero and Valencia, a Mission lure for over a decade. You’ll still have to wait—they never take reservations—but at least the attitude is calm, relaxed, and café style. This airy space is long and skinny with lots of bar seating at the hefty dark wood bar and a few heavy wooden tables. Combined with the tall ceilings and painted wooden beams they create an Alpine, comfy ski-lodge feel—precisely the environment owner Sylvie Lemer seeks to create, naming the place "the old house" in the language of the Brittany region of France.

A mixed crowd of all stripes flocks here for the unique Brittany-style crepes—savory buckwheat pancakes filled with nearly anything you can imagine, but egg, cheese, tomato, and mushroom sauce are some of their more popular choices. Dishes are small and light, leaving plenty of room for the excellent onion soup gratin or seafood salad, or the sweet crepes, infused with every possible combination of fruit, cream, chocolate, and ice cream. Not to be missed is their extensive beverage menu, featuring outstanding selections of fresh lemonade, hard French cider from small vineyards, and house-made hot chocolate, served French style in a finely-crafted ceramic bowl.

 
 


Did we mention that the Mission is an eclectic United Nations of cuisine? Seated at this table beside Latin America, Asia, and Europe is also the Senegalese bar, restaurant, and music hall Bissap Baobab on Mission at 19th. Owner Marco Senghor is deeply concerned with every guest feeling comfortable and among friends, and this deeply relaxed notion resonates throughout the subtle décor of bamboo mats, simple seating and low lights, and the playful language lessons often incurred on how to say "please" and "thank you" in Senegalese.

Sampling the delicious and unusual elixirs, alcoholic and non, made from the house-made ginger, tamarind, and hibiscus juice are a must to fully experience that exotic African feel. The menu is equally as memorable, featuring unusual offerings of meat, fish, or tofu served in a savory peanut sauce, a pungent onion sauce, or a puckery lemon mustard, with couscous or rice, fried plantains, and salad.

People come for the food and drink, or on occasion just the drink, but linger long into the night to mix and mingle and take in the spinning wheel schedule of world music, spoken word, or ambient DJ’s from the small stage. The crowd has the hippy edge often associated with people of all races interested in and appreciative of African culture, but the vibe is all friendly and anything goes. There’s a lot to look at, and if you want to keep looking after dinner, the restaurant owns a similarly themed bar around the corner on 19th street where the drinks and beats keep flowing to help you work off dinner.

 

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