Take a walk through two distinctive and lively neighborhoods in the City by the Bay.
Pity the tourists on Lombard Street. While they idle by the carload, waiting to inch down a single crooked block, people in the know are over on 24th Street, soaking up authentic San Francisco. It may not be the curviest or steepest, but pedestrian-friendly 24th Street is one of the city's most captivating arteries—pumping life into two distinct neighborhoods. The sunny, Latin-flavored Mission District lies on the eastern stretch, the chic enclave of Noe Valley on the west. Spend the day strolling 24th from Potrero Avenue to Douglass Street and you'll get a genuine feel for life in the city, along with a look at plenty of eccentric boutiques, corner cafés, and ethnic eateries.
Since the quickest route to a community's heart is through your stomach, begin your 24th Street explorations with the Mission's legendary Latino bakeries. At 4:30 a.m., La Mexicana (2804 24th St.) is already hawking crusty bolillos (French rolls) and whimsical crocodile-shaped confections. Five bucks buys a tray of goodies, but pace yourself: Still ahead are fruit-filled empanadas at La Victoria (2937 24th St.) and cinnamon-dusted churros at Dominguez Bakery (2951 24th St.), set out warm at 10 a.m. on Sundays.
24th Street Souvenirs
Just as much fun as a pastry comparison on 24th is a tasteoff with carne asada tacos. For $1.50 you can savor one at Taqueria Vallarta (3033 24th St.) while you watch soccer on TV, or try La Gallinita (2989 24th St.), which sells its tempting tacos only on weekends. Also worth seeking out: Tortas Los Picudos (2969 24th St.) for gigantic grilled tortas (sandwiches) topped with ham, salami, chorizo, or even chorizo and egg, and washed down with a blend of fresh pineapple, carrot, orange, celery, and beet juice known as a vampiro. For great tortilla chips and four different kinds of house-made salsa, check out the venerable Casa Sanchez (2778 24th St.).
A step up from tacos and tortas, El Delfin (3066 24th St.) is all about freshness, from the plump chipotle prawns to the made-on-the-spot guacamole. For a real head turner, order the volcán en molcajete—a bubbling inferno of meat, cheese, and red sauce, served in a dark stone mortar—which indeed looks volcanic. Chefs itching to try this trick at home can pick up a molcajete at Casa Lucas Market (2934 24th St.) while perusing bins of dried chiles and red beans—plus a piñata-strung produce aisle brimming with ripe papayas, sweet fresh coconuts, and knobby nopal cactus leaves. You can also find specialties like bags of tamale spices and crumbly cotija cheese at nearby La Palma Mexicatessen (2884 24th St.), but the real draw here is the best tortillas in town, handmade daily from fresh-ground corn.
Outside La Palma, corn is featured prominently in a mural—one of dozens of colorful works that represent the immigrant community. Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center (2981 24th St.) offers weekend tours that include the famed Balmy Alley (off 24th between Treat and Harrison), a street gallery of some 30 murals running across fences. Contrast these with the digital creations at Galeria de la Raza (2857 24th St.) that confront such topics as racial profiling and neighborhood gentrification.
The vanguard of hipsters who have moved here add another colorful thread to the local fabric. You can find them at Philz Coffee (3101 24th St.), chatting over addictively strong coffee made a cup at a time. On weekends, they join the crowds lined up at the 90-year-old St. Francis Fountain (2801 24th St.) for sundaes and banana splits.
After satisfying your sweet tooth, head across the street to Angela's Gift House (2824 24th St. near York St.), which offers such karmic necessities as jinx-removing spray and spell-breaker soap.
Soap or no, it's difficult to break the spell of the Mission, but Noe (it's pronounced NO-ee) Valley's equally enticing offerings await. Crossing Valencia Street, make the 10-minute walk west up 24th Street and the scene slowly shifts, as the aroma of grilling carnitas and the trumpet of ranchera music is replaced by the scent of French-milled bath soap and the squeak of babystroller wheels.
Get your bearings in this new landscape at Martha & Bros. Coffee Company (3868 24th St.), where regulars converge on outdoor benches to discuss pets, politics, and housing prices over icy frappé mochas. After caffeine and conversation, follow your nose to the exceptional 24th St. Cheese Co. (3893 24th St.) for everything from a basic dill Havarti to the famously odoriferous Stinking Bishop. Pick up one of the shop's fondue pots and stroll a block to Noe Valley Bakery & Bread Co. (4073 24th St.), where blueberry-pecan scones share oven space with cherry-chocolate bread. If that last combination sounds tempting, step inside Chocolate Covered (4069 24th St.), which sells chocolates studded with sea salt and blood orange, as well as gift tins depicting local landmarks and streets (including 24th).
Bookworms should continue to the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore (4175 24th St.), a 33-year-old whodunit temple where you'll discover pulp paperbacks next to signed limited editions by Michael Connelly. For lovers of hard-to-find periodicals, Good News (3920 24th St.) stocks them on topics such as taichi, longboarding, fashion, woodworking, and more.
Just up the street, two shops offer different takes on selfdecoration: Gallery of Jewels (4089 24th St.) features graceful silver pendants and colored resin rings by local craftspeople, while at Qoio (4068 24th St.), designer Gilbertina Guarini weaves strings of amber, coral, and semiprecious stones into dramatic combinations. Don't miss the back garden filled with sleeping stone Buddhas.
If it's time to unwind, you'll find the cocktail set flocking to Bliss Bar (4026 24th St.), a martini lounge serving gin from San Francisco's Distillery 209. When you've finished your drink, join the local foodies at Firefly (4288 24th St.), where you can order such entrées as grilled mahimahi with avocado green curry or a flaky vegan pasty with heirloom tomato chutney.
Stepping outside, take a last look east and you just can make out the blue neon marquee of the Brava Theater Center (2781 24th St.), welcoming people to a Spanish guitar performance or a one-woman show. Between these two points in San Francisco, a single vibrant street provides irrefutable proof: The most enjoyable route is a straight line.
Detours worth taking
Photography by Gabriela Hasbun
This article was first published in March 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.