San Francisco's Mission District celebrates every cuisine with its bounty of ethnic restaurants.
The aroma of carnitas sizzling on the griddle draws you close enough to peer into La Taqueria. On the other hand, this might be the night for a dry martini and some crisp, curly polenta fries at Andalu. But to walk there you’d have to pass the cart selling bacon dogs, succulent beef franks wrapped in bacon, tucked in a bun, and heaped with charred serrano chiles. Maybe the answer is a plate of Pakwan’s rib-sticking chicken tikka masala. Or Guatemalan chuchitos—tender corn tamales—at the cavernous Palacio Latino. Or a Niman Ranch burger on sesame brioche from the Monk’s Kettle. Or shrimp ceviche and a nice Chilean white at Limon. . .
For decades, irresistible, wallet-friendly food has been a hallmark of the vibrant, multiethnic, and slightly funky neighborhood known as the Mission. But over the last few years the influx of restaurants has accelerated. Their owners, who are often also the folks at the stove, are drawn to the area’s lower rents and try-anything clientele. These eateries are among the most exciting and affordable in the city because, unlike some downtown mainstays, they’re not catering to onetime visits from tourists but must attract, and keep, local customers with interesting cooking and fair prices. They’ve made the Mission the city’s go-to neighborhood for eating out, and on weekend nights you’ll find the streets crawling with urbanites looking for a fun, fresh place to try.
Just a short walk from La Taqueria, for instance, at year-old Lolo, chorizo is stuffed not into a burrito but into a plump Medjool date—a salty, sweet treat. With its whimsical flavor combos and eclectic decor, Lolo reflects the heritage of its owners: Merdol Erkal is Turkish; Jorge Martinez is Mexican. Walk a little farther and you can order crab fluffs and fried chicken at tiny, stylish Maverick, where the walls are painted burnt orange and decorated with a deconstructed map of the United States. Perhaps the best plan of all: Hit a few spots over the course of an evening. Start with a kumquat-infused cocktail at Range, cross the street for South Indian curry and raita at Dosa, then stop at the Bi-Rite Creamery for a decadent mint chip ice cream cone. Then again, if there’s a table free at the Mission Beach Cafe, the massive $6 slice of smooth, custardy banana-butterscotch cream pie may be the greatest deal—not to mention one of the greatest desserts—in the city.
How did this once dodgy neighborhood develop into such a dynamic dining scene? The Mission’s transformation began in the late 1990s, when the glamorous Foreign Cinema opened on a dismal stretch of Mission Street, serving oysters on the half shell and screening movies on a wall above its candlelit courtyard. Around the same time, Craig and Anne Stoll opened instant phenom Delfina on 18th Street. "Our block was definitely gritty," Craig recalls. "All the businesses had gates on their windows. But having a neighborhood that’s kind of lowrent, diverse, and nonslick can be very inspirational for people who want to do things that are . . . I don’t want to use the term real, but I guess personal, more heartfelt."
Delfina, which serves grilled fish, braised meats, and pastas straight out of Italy’s best trattorias, has since become an anchor in this corner of the neighborhood (which no one would describe as "gritty" anymore). "People around here get what we do," Craig says. "Last night’s menu included sweetbreads saltimbocca. People were like, ‘Bring it on!’ We’ve never had to dummy things down, never had to put a Caesar salad on the menu." The Stolls added Pizzeria Delfina next door a few years ago. Tartine Bakery opened on the corner in 2002, and its addictive éclairs and morning buns have been attracting lines that snake out the door ever since. Last year, another space down the block was transformed into the airy Farina—its centerpiece is an opulent Tuscan marble bar—which re-creates delicacies from Italy’s Liguria region, like a cheesier, fluffier take on focaccia. And Delfina alum Bruce Binn recently converted an old KFC into the industrial-chic Spork, where he serves playful creations like "inside-out" burgers, in which beef and bun switch places.
Are these restaurants cheap? Not compared to a taqueria, but they’re a considerably better deal than their counterparts downtown. And while many of them have clustered on the increasingly gentrified western edge of the Mission, others are staking out rougher territory. Consider the aptly named Maverick, which Cincinnatiborn chef Scott Youkilis opened in a narrow storefront on what he calls a "weird, crazy block" of 17th Street. The surroundings may be sketchy, but Maverick isn’t: Three years later, the restaurant is full most nights. Meanwhile, Bar Bambino opened last year just two blocks away, and an already devoted following elbows in for bruschetta, panini, and Italian wines.
"A few years ago, if a restaurant opened there, most people would have said that’s a death sentence," says Marcia Gagliardi, who reports on San Francisco restaurants at tablehopper.com. "But now you see more and more of these cool little outposts off the beaten path."
All of this is mouthwatering news for the food lover. But it makes deciding where to eat that much more of a challenge. You may want to pick up a bacon dog for sustenance as you weigh the options.
Cheap eats: 15 treats under $15
- Delicate, buttery Mexican wedding cookie. 65 cents, Tartine Bakery, 600 Guerrero.
- Rich, spicy carne asada taco—a hearty snack or a light meal. $1.25, El Gallo Giro taco truck, Treat and 23rd.
- Exuberant Ricanelas ice cream—cinnamon flavor with crumbled snickerdoodles. $2.90, Bi-Rite Creamery, 3692 18th.
- Wedge of moist almond torte layered with raspberry jam. $3.25, Dianda’s, 2883 Mission.
- Piping hot fries in a paper cone with spicy chipotle mayo on the side. $3.50, Frjtz, 590 Valencia.
$10 and Under
- Two shrimp tacos with chipotle aioli and jicama, each bite tangy, fiery, crunchy, and creamy all at once. $7.50, Lolo, 3234 22nd.
- Egg bruschette: two poached eggs atop slabs of toast showered with truffle salt and Parmesan. $9, Bar Bambino, 2931 16th.
- Gooey cheese dosa—like a quesadilla made with a paper-thin South Indian pancake instead of a tortilla. $9.50, Dosa, 995 Valencia.
- Duck confit salad, the perfect marriage of rich, salty meat and tart, crispy greens. $10, Mission Beach Cafe, 198 Guerrero.
$15 and Under
- Fat spears of asparagus with Vermont cheddar, bacon vinaigrette, and crunchy breadcrumbs. $10.50, Range, 842 Valencia.
- Pillowy gnocchi with green garlic and fresh Dungeness crab. $12, Conduit, 280 Valencia.
- Succulent open-faced pork belly sandwich with shoestring fries. $14, Bar Tartine, 561 Valencia.
- Spicy, shimmering antelope tartare. $15, Maverick, 3316 17th.
- Soft slabs of fresh yellowtail tuna in a pool of exquisite mint sauce. $15, Minako, 2154 Mission.
Where to dine in San Francisco’s Mission District
Here's how to find all the cheap eats mentioned in the article. The area code is 415.
3198 16th St.
3234 22nd St.
Bacon Dog Cart
Usually found at 23rd & Mission streets, but it moves around.
694 Valencia St.
2931 16th St.
3316 17th St. 863-3061
561 Valencia St.
2154 Mission St.
3692 18th St.
Mission Beach Cafe
198 Guerrero St.
280 Valencia St.
The Monk's Kettle
3141 16th St.
3621 18th St.
3180-82 16th St.
Dianda's Italian American Pastry Co.
2883 Mission St.
2240 Mission St.
995 Valencia St.
3611 18th St.
3560 18th St.
842 Valencia St.
2534 Mission St.
1058 Valencia St.
590 Valencia St.
2889 Mission St.
El Gallo Giro Taco
Truck Treat & 23rd streets
600 Guerrero St.
524 Valencia St.
Photography by Mitch Tobias
This article was first published in July 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up the AAA San Francisco map. Street parking is easy to find on weekdays but can be a challenge at night and on weekends. Try the New Mission Bartlett Garage at 90 Bartlett just west of Mission Street (enter on 21st Street) or the Hoff Street Garage at 42 Hoff (also west of Mission) at 16th Street. BART stations (bart.gov) are on Mission at 16th and 24th streets.