Ignored by visitors, San Francisco's liveliest quarter is much loved by locals.
You've shopped at Union Square. You've eaten crab Louis on Fisherman's Wharf and had pot stickers in Chinatown. You've strolled through North Beach and ridden halfway to the stars on a little cable car. These are all perfectly pleasant ways to spend time in San Francisco, but they're not the end of the story. They're not even the beginning. San Francisco's very first neighborhood—the sprawling, gritty, and sunny Mission District—is all but unknown to visitors. It was here, in 1776, that Spanish padres founded a mission, and it is here, today, that you will find the city's most exciting and surprising cultural mix. The Mission has always been relatively affordable, and it's become a magnet for young people, actors, painters, dancers, and restaurateurs. They've brought with them great food and chic bistros. They've opened tiny, gorgeous boutiques, quirky political bookstores, and sizzling nightspots. They've founded cutting-edge theaters. It's time to give the Mission a try.
On June 29, 1776, Father Francisco Palou, part of an expedition sent from Mexico, celebrated mass at the site selected for a new mission church. The settlers had gathered near the northwest edge of today's Mission District, a sunny valley that seemed good for farming—and a good place to introduce European ways to the wilds of Alta California.
The newcomers enlisted Costanoan Indians as converts and laborers to build a church. Completed in 1791, Mission Dolores is now the city's oldest building. The settlement was a qualified success; by 1841, it had no priest and a population of only about 50. But the Gold Rush would soon transform California, especially San Francisco.
Two sandy, hilly miles separated Mission Dolores from the center of the new town at Portsmouth Plaza. The Mission remained fairly remote until a plank road made it easily accessible in 1850. Soon, racetracks, bullfight arenas, and other raffish attractions sprang up by the church. The Mission District had become the place to go for a good time.
Rapidly expanding westward, urban San Francisco finally reached Mission Dolores, and in the 1860s the land around it was subdivided into housing plots.
The new neighborhood soon became a stopping-off point for successive waves of immigrants. As Germans, Irish, and Italians arrived, its working-class identity was solidly established.
An influx of Latin Americans that began in the 1930s became a flood in the '50s, when the area embraced the bright, extro-verted character we celebrate today.
The Mission's most colorful flamboyance is undoubtedly its murals. Buildings from Dolores Park Cafe to Cesar Chavez Elementary School have had their walls transformed into outdoor canvases for brilliant and poignant art.
Drawing on the Mexican mural movement of the 1920s and the socially conscious ideals of the '60s, many of the murals embrace Hispanic heritage and human rights. They're emblazoned on the garages, fences, and doorways lining an entire block on Balmy Street, an alley between 24th and 25th streets. Subjects from the golden age of Mexican cinema to slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero are depicted in the vivid images of more than 30 murals.
Keeping mural art alive is the focus of Precita Eyes Mural Arts & Visitors Center (2981 24th St.). Its volunteers lead mural walks and bicycle tours. For more information, call Precita Eyes at 285-2287* or visit www.precitaeyes.org.
Here's where bookstores get unchained. There is no Borders, but there is Borderlands (866 Valencia St., 888-893-4008, daily noon-8), a specialist in sci-fi-fantasy and horror. The Mission is a bargain hunter's paradise, with most of the stock used or remaindered. If you have a yen for Zen or a passion for poetry, try Forest Books (3080 16th St., 863-2755, daily 11-9). The best for bibliophiles is Tall Stories (2141 Mission St., Ste. 301, 586-2363, Fri.-Sat. 11:30-5), a collective specializing in "history, mystery, and first editions." Books in the Mission tend to lean left on the shelf, especially at the ultraprogressive Modern Times (888 Valencia St., 282-9246, Mon.-Sat. 10-9, Sun. 11-6). Typical, too, are the staff-written notes: At Dog Eared Books (900 Valencia St., 282-1901, Mon.-Sat. 10-10, Sun. 10-8), one says, "Charles Bukowski is now in our beat and local author section—well, LA is sort of local!"
Youthful, alternative, and eclectic, the shops dotting the Mission's ultrahip Valencia Street and its side streets are places to look for unique gifts, funky housewares, and upstart clothing labels. Welcome to the antimall:
At Dema (1038 Valencia St., 206-0500), try on the clothing store's own line of 1960s-inspired pieces in addition to other boutique labels. . . . Rayon Vert (3187 16th St., 861-3516) is more than the flower shop where owner Kelly Kornegay turns out loosely styled seasonal arrangements; the shop also sells vintage maps, beach glass, and tooth fairy pillows. . . . A cross between a Smith & Hawken garden store and a taxidermist's studio, Paxton Gate (824 Valencia St., 824-1872) has everything from flower shears to stuffed armadillos. . . . An Eames chair, an 1800s cabinet, and a minimalist 2002 sofa all share the same room at Den (849 Valencia St., 282-6646), a furniture store with new and vintage designs. . . . All of the furniture and home accessories at Home Remedies (1026 Valencia St., 826-2026) are made in America; find brightly colored bedroom pieces (looking for an orange dresser?), Shaker-style chairs, and baby blankets made from recycled sweaters. . . . From Tahitian vanilla candles to lemongrass essential oil, everything at Currents (911 Valencia St., 648-2015) smells yummy.
If you want crisp-crusted pupusas stuffed with pork and cheese or a snow-white guanabana milk shake, come to the Mission. If you want Guatemalan chuchitos, sublime gnocchi, or astonishing scallop ravioli drizzled with truffle oil, come to the Mission.
There are neighborhoods in San Francisco where the restaurants have better views and there are neighborhoods where the chefs are more famous. But there is no San Francisco neighborhood with so many terrific values or a wider range of exciting restaurants, eccentric bistros, and home-style ethnic spots. Read on for a maddeningly incomplete list of VIA's favorite Mission eateries.
Alma — The room is cool and turquoise, the arepas (South American cornmeal pancakes) addictive, and the sea bass ceviche just about perfect. Johnny Alamilla, formerly a chef at heavyweight downtown restaurants like Boulevard and Postrio, opened this sophisticated Nuevo Latino restaurant in 2001. Entrées $14-$19. (1101 Valencia St., 401-8959.)
Andalu — Dress up, come with a group, and ask for the sangria, polenta fries, and ahi tuna tacos. This festive spot serves small plates of exquisite food that is intended to be shared. Small plates $6-$14. (3198 16th St., 621-2211.)
Blue Plate — This low-key spot makes, quite simply, the best meat loaf in the world (and it's organic). Also, great salads, baked beans, and mashed potatoes. Portions are ample, but save room for the warm chocolate baby cake. Entrées $12-$17. (3218 Mission St., 282-6777.)
Delfina — The menu is seasonal and simple. We recommend just about everything, but especially the homemade gnocchi, the succulent roasted spareribs, and a dazzling Scharffen Berger chocolate cake. Entrées $10-$19. (3621 18th St., 552-4055.)
El Majahual — He's Colombian, she's Salvadoran, and they've split the menu at their little restaurant right down the middle. Order Salvadoran pupusas and a platter of Colombian-style grilled meats, rice, beans, and arepas. Entrées $3.95-$9. (1142 Valencia St., 821-7514.)
Emmy's — Spaghetti Shack By 7 p.m., this fabulous candlelit dive decorated with vintage aprons is packed with families, tattooed hipsters, and men in black leather. A big bowl of spaghetti costs $6; add meatballs and it's $8. Entrées $6-$18. (18 Virginia St., 206-2086.)
Firecracker — The atmosphere at even the best Chinese restaurants often leaves something to be desired. Not so here. The walls are burnt orange and the chandeliers are made of shards of broken glass. And the northern Chinese food is superb, from the Yin Yang Prawns (half are red and spicy, the other half unctuous and studded with walnuts) to the pea shoots with silken mushrooms. Entrées $8-$17. (1007 Valencia St., 642-3470.)
Luna Park — Once a butcher shop, this lively spot with crimson walls and glittering chandeliers now serves playful, affordable American food. We recommend the tuna poke—a mountain of pink Hawaiian-style chopped raw tuna—on a bed of golden wonton crisps. Or the chicken potpie. Or the mussels. Or the grilled flat iron steak. Or the bananas Foster. Entrées $9-$14. (694 Valencia St., 553-8584.)
San Miguel — Guatemalan food is just like authentic Mexican food—but completely different. The beans are always black, the rice is white, and the tamales are steamed in banana leaves, not corn husks. Pepian is a traditional Guatemalan chicken stew, and it's good here. So are the meats, perfectly seasoned and pan-fried. Entrées $8-$12. (3520 20th St., 826-0173.)
Walzwerk — When you're feeling anemic, come to this strange and charming place that dishes up hearty East German fare. Fill up on hunks of delicious marinated beef and potato dumplings the size of tennis balls, or spaetzle with cheese, schnitzel, and beet salad. A terrific selection of German beers. Entrées $10-$14. (381 S. Van Ness Ave., 551-7181.)>
Catch a scathing political documentary, works by emerging playwrights, gay or Jewish theater productions, and music from around the world. Get your tickets here:
Roxie Cinema doesn't flinch from showing wacky, censored, or even mainstream films—both eccentric and fabulous. (3117 16th St., 863-1087, www.roxie.com.)
Intersection for the Arts showcases jazz, art, and theater. The resident theater group, Campo Santo, works with playwrights to develop stories that speak to and about the Mission. (446 Valencia St., 626-3311, www.theintersection.org.)
Theatre Rhinoceros lays claim to being the country's longest-running lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender theater company, producing new plays yearly on two stages. (2926 16th St., 861-5079, www.therhino.org.)
Brava! supports projects for women and people of color. This former cinema is a venue for plays, world and Latin music, solo performances, puppetry, and film festivals in a 371-seat theater. (2781 24th St., 647-2822, www.brava.org.)
The Marsh hosts theater, including many solo performances, in an intimate setting. The Mock Cafe serves stand-up comedy. (1062 Valencia St., 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.)
A Traveling Jewish Theatre creates and performs works rooted in Jewish culture in its 88-seat space. (470 Florida St., 399-1809, www.atjt.com.)
ODC Theater celebrates both local and international performers in presentations from classic Chinese opera to modern dance to flamenco. (3153 17th St., 863-9834, www.odctheater.org.)
Burritos are the Mission's signature dish. The neighborhood is chockablock with taquerias churning out tortilla-wrapped packages filled with rice, beans, salsa, meat, and, if they're "supers," cheese, guacamole, and sour cream. Each taqueria offers a different product, but you can always count on a quick, inexpensive, filling meal.
Tortilla — Your LP-size flour tortilla likely was made and delivered that morning. It's always warmed before being filled. Some prefer the places, such as Can-Cun (2288 Mission St., 252-9560), that grill their tortillas.
Meat — Preparations are authentic Mexican, never fussy. Al pastor? Yes. Niman Ranch beef? No. Chicken is most popular; other options are equally delicious: La Corneta's prawns (2731 Mission St., 643-7001), La Cumbre's steak (515 Valencia St., 863-8205), Taqueria San Jose's pork (2830 Mission St., 282-0203). Or forgo meat; try Mariachi's tofu (508 Valencia St., 621-4358).
Guacamole — Smooth or chunky; always fresh, never prepackaged. At some taquerias, like El Castillito (2092 Mission St., 621-6971), slices of avocado can sub for the guac.
Cheese — Forget the cheddar. Most often it's a grated Monterey Jack, and occasionally a Mexican cheese such as Chihuahua.
Rice — Spanish style, with onions, tomatoes, and chicken broth, is standard. Ideally, it's light and fluffy and has been made that day. But is rice necessary? Purists shun the carbo-loaded filler and frequent La Taqueria (2889 Mission St., 285-7117), where rice isn't even on the menu.
Beans — Whole or refried, black or pinto—all options are rich in calcium, iron, protein, folate, fiber, and phosphorus. No wonder taquerias call their food nutritious. Some, such as El Toro (598 Valencia St., 431-3351), have removed the lard from their refried recipes.
Salsa — A mix of diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeños gives a fiery kick. Some places have salsa bars: Casa Sanchez (2778 24th St., 282-2400) puts out bowls of the sauces it sells to grocery stores; Pancho Villa (3071 16th St., 864-8840) numbs mouths with award-winning varieties.>
Sour Cream — Controversial. Many call it inauthentic. For those who think its cool richness essential, the cooks at El Farolito (2779 Mission St., 824-7877) know the perfect amount is not too much, not too little.
Save room for dessert. The neighborhood is full of small businesses selling sweet-tasting goodies. Here are four of our favorite treats.
Rose ice cream at the Bombay Ice Creamery — Unless you've visited India, you've probably never tried ice cream with flavor as aromatic as the scent of a dozen long stems. (552 Valencia St., 431-1103.)
Banana split at St. Francis Fountain — A classic version with chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream. (2801 24th St., 826-4200.)
Niño envuelto from La Victoria Panaderia — The yellow cake filled with jam and rolled in coconut is like a Hostess Zinger, but better because it's made that morning with real butter. (2937 24th St., 642-7120.)
Brownies at Tartine Bakery — Made with Scharffen Berger, these treats are as satisfying as a solid bar of chocolate. (600 Guerrero St., 487-2600.)
Tonight I'm on a mission of my own: to hit all of the hot spots in the Mission District before the sun comes up. Not an easy task in an area offering everything from cool jazz to hot salsa.
5:34 p.m. — Swap gnarly motorcycle tales with biker gang at Zeitgeist (199 Valencia St., 255-7505).
6:18 p.m. — Drink margarita from pint glass at Latin American Club (3286 22nd St., 647-2732). Wacky bar decorations: cuckoo clock collection and piñatas.
8:01 p.m. — Slide into red leather booth at Bruno's (2389 Mission St., 648-7701), a swank supper club. 9:03 p.m. Head to adjacent bar to catch funk band Raw Deluxe.>
9:56 p.m. — Blinking neon sign above Doc's Clock (2575 Mission St., 824-3627) proclaims cocktail time. 9:57 p.m. Obey sign, enter bar. 10:13 p.m. Try my hand at shuffleboard and lose to a woman carrying helium balloons.
10:23 p.m. — Afro-Brazilian drummers at Hush Hush (496 14th St., 241-9944).
10:42 p.m. — Elbo Room (647 Valencia St., 552-7788). Aspiring screenwriter woos me with a Pink Pearl Cosmo.
11:02 p.m. — Queens' night at Esta Noche (3079 16th St., 861-5757). I stand in line at the door behind a transvestite wearing a silver-sequined miniskirt.
11:14 p.m. — Order chocolate martini at Blondie's (540 Valencia St., 864-2419). Drink arrives, straight up with a Hershey's Kiss. 11:22 p.m. Hit dance floor to Prince's "Kiss."
11:32 p.m. — "Nu Yorican" DJ at the Make-Out Room (3225 22nd St., 647-2888) spins Latin techno.
11:51 p.m. — Lone Palm (3394 22nd St., 648-0109) bartender pours electric-blue liquid into shot glass. Ingredients? "A little bit of vodka; a whole lotta love."
Midnight. — For a more wholesome cocktail, I head to 2202 Oxygen Bar (795 Valencia St., 255-2102). 12:02 a.m. Sit in reclining chair with tubes stuck up nose, sniffing Aphrodisiac oxygen cocktail of sage, sandalwood, and ylang-ylang.
12:32 a.m. — Roccapulco Supper Club (3140 Mission St., 648-6611). Venezuelan salsa honcho Oscar D'Leon croons onstage before a dressed-to-kill crowd.
Not sure what time it is. — Punk night at El Rio (3158 Mission St., 282-3325). I chat with the lead singer of self-described up-and-coming band the Grannies. "We wear granny dresses onstage," he says.