I’ll never forget my first taste of the Mission. It was the winter of 2000 and the grey clouds over the Bay Area were protesting the result of that presidential election by refusing to shift. I exited the BART at Mission & 16th and walked straight into a rainstorm. I hazily recall my sodden search for somewhere with a roof and my enormous relief when I spotted the smoky interior of Taqueria Cancun. Within minutes I’d had my first ever bite of a carne asada super burrito – and I’d lost my heart in San Francisco.
Last winter I returned to the Mission for the first time in years and things didn’t quite seem the same. Maybe it’s too gentrified, too hip, too crowded – or maybe it’s me that’s changed. I needed help reconnecting with this cosmopolitan, colorful and unpredictable district. So I called Samir.
Samir is Mission through and through – he’s lived here for years and has never stopped exploring. He’s Mission food royalty: his grandfather opened Bi-Rite, a local ice-cream parlor, grocery store and all-round foodie hotspot. The BurgerMeister chain is also owned by his family, as is Phat Philly, specialising in Philadelphia-style cheesesteaks. After a portion of chips and salsa from Papalote it was time to tuck in.
Now this must be the ultimate comfort food. A heap of wonderfully high-quality Kobe beef is smothered in gloriously low-quality Cheez Whiz and spiked with onions and peppers for a kick – and the whole lot is stuffed into a bun made by Philly’s Ameroso Bakery. A selection of 21st Amendment beers and $2 PBRs – stay classy! – make this a great place to start a night out. Cue gratuitous close-up:
Our second stop on 24th Street was Mr Pollo, a cash-only hole-in-the-wall where inked-up chef Johnny runs a high-octane one-man show. While our curried beet soup with pomegranate and locally foraged fennel was spectacular, I was even more stunned by Johnny’s intense workload. He’s at the farmers’ market by 9am every morning searching for the day’s ingredients and he doesn’t get out of his kitchen until well past midnight. This guy must seriously love his job.
“People in the Mission are more into food than people in other San Francisco neighborhoods,” he tells me. “They’re adventurous and into new ideas. There are lots of students, lots of chefs, lots of people who don’t have all that much money to spend in this area, and that’s why our food is affordable.” At $20 for a four-course tasting menu, it’s an incredible bargain.
Mr Pollo was founded by Venezuelan-born chef, Manny Torres Gimenez, who’s something of a culinary legend around here. He’s also a friend of Samir’s, which means we got the inside story on his amazing new Italian pop-up at no-frills diner Roxy’s Cafe.
“Initially it was just a place I could run for a couple of days to cook some Italian food and have some fun,” he says, preparing perfectly al dente handmade pasta in a balsamic reduction. “I didn’t tell anybody about it but it was really popular on the first evening so I’ve done a deal with the owner and I’m going to keep it.” Is there enough room in the Mission for another restaurant? “Well everybody in the Mission has a great palate so the food here has to be very unique and very good.” As you can see below, he’s got nothing to worry about.
“This is fine dining for hard-working people,” Chef Manny continues. “I understand restaurants with huge staff charging lots of money, but we’re a one-man show. The chef does absolutely everything and that allows us to be very low-cost. We invest in good ingredients.”
Speaking of low-cost, the tacos at Taqueria Vallarta, a ten-minute walk down 24th Street, cost only $1.75. A woman in a blue apron stands by the entrance grilling such authentic delights as cabeza (beef head), lengua (tongue), tripita (tripe) and buche (neck). Yum, honestly.
Who knew neck tasted so good? This was a phenomenal taco: full of texture, crunch, sweetness and spiciness. Could this be the best taco in the Mission? The following day I tried to find out. I went to La Espiga De Oro and La Palma Mexicatessen. Both were amazing but neither were quite as good as the blue-aproned woman’s neck taco. Samir got it right.
In between Vallarta tacos and the most beautiful ice cream you’ll taste anywhere (I should keep some of Samir’s picks secrets…), we explored the alleyways of the Mission, famed for their murals. This may be a food tour but Samir loves to talk about the history of the area as well as the stories behind many of the murals.
By the end of the tour I was stuffed. I’d eaten amazing food and loved being in Samir’s company. It’s incredible that there’s so much variety on a single street. Most importantly, I’d rekindled my love affair with the Mission. Samir took me to several places I’d never visited before and pointed out many others. I can’t wait to go back.