It was a bright and sunny day as we boarded the BART train from the Walnut Creek station, ready for the foodie hotspots we were to discover. The train was packed full of commuters, all headed into their respective jobs the same time of morning that we decided to board. Once past the Powell station, we could each breathe a sigh of relief as less and less individuals stayed on the train. I had personally never been farther than the Civic Center station when riding the train, and hearing what my mother had to say about the mission being one of the most dangerous spots in the city scared me a but I was determined to keep forging ahead and truly experience a culinary adventure.
Once we arrived, it was as if we had stepped into a part of San Francisco that I had never experienced before, and I had grown up in the city until I was around the age of ten. Papel Picado or small and intricate cut paper designs hung from lines strung through the trees and lamp posts; the various restaurants and cafes all sporting Dia de Los Muertos sugar skull ornaments and figurines. I was more excited than ever, being as I am of Latin American decent (I’m Salvadorean and a little Spanish in case you were wondering) and hoped that a pupusaria was going to be included on our culinary tour.
For sake of not having each food experience that I had melting together with one another, I have chosen to describe my five favorite places that were visited in depth as well as my experience with the art murals (being that I am an art practice major it was only inevitable that I speak about them).
The first of these experiences was at the cupcake shop known as Mission Minis. Started by a musician who wanted to spend less time on the road and more time with his family, this small cupcake shop has become a hidden gem of the mission district, serving up classic favorites and flavors with a hint of spanish flare such as Cinnamon Horchata and Aztec Chocolate.
The moment I heard that we were headed into a cupcake shop my heart skipped a beat, remembering the time that I spent working in Kara’s Cupcakes and the cupcake culture that was spreading across the US. I watched avidly as the employee spread out small napkins and waited for each of us to choose which flavor we wanted to try and I could feel myself getting slightly nostalgic, remembering those summer days when I’d help serve these morsels to lines reaching out of the shop door. It was no surprise that I tried the Cinnamon Horchata flavor, seeing as how the horchata drink is one of my favorites in the world.
Surprisingly, I was a little disappointed with the taste of the cupcake overall, the cinnamon being the more dominant flavor causing the spice of the horchata to be lost. Even though this drink does, in fact, taste like cinnamon normally, there is also a distinct rice flavor that is present and differentiates it from other drinks which I did not find in this cupcake. Though it was delicious, I believe that the overall horchata flavor was a little lost in the cake itself. I believe that it was all of the memories that tasting that cupcake brought to mind of my days working in the cupcake shop that made this small dessert part of my top five experiences. And while I did not think that the horchata flavor was present in this cupcake, it was ever present in the horchata flavored ice cream of Humphry Slocomb Ice Cream later in the tour
Next we kept walking down 24th street to arrive at the Wise Sons Delicatessen. Started by its owners who wanted to bring the Jewish-style delis from the east coast to the Bay Area, this place was nowhere short on flavor. Its house-made pastrami, mustard, and rye bread proved to be beyond what I had ever expected in a pastrami sandwich; the pastrami warm and tender enough to fall apart into small pieces when it hit my tongue. The mustard provided just the right amount of tartness to counteract the salt of the meat, all beautifully balanced with the fluffy layer of the homemade rye its herbs melding together with the salt and tart creating something harmonious. The homemade pickles were also a nice touch, adding yet another layer of bitterness and sweet to the mix and helping to further balance the dish. Whether the amazing homemade ingredients that made up the pastrami or the new-york environment of seeing everything prepared in from of you as a true and traditional deli, Wise Sons is a definite must when visiting the mission district.
Continuing my list of favorite spots was the Local Mission Eatery, who, by the suggestion of its name, solely uses ingredients from local growers and farmers markets in the bay area. I was too quick to first judge this as something that would not be included in my top five as I had not ever had a vegetarian dish that satisfied my hunger but I was pleasantly surprised. The sandwich we sampled was comprised of local vendor bread layered with pumpkin butter, ricotta cheese, kale, and a radish and green apple slaw. Maybe it was the velvet creaminess of the ricotta or the tang of the green apple and radish slaw, but my palette was definitely fooled into thinking that meat was somewhere present in this dish. The crunch of the slaw and earthy taste of the kale in the back of my throat made me yearn for more, something that until that point had never happened with a vegetarian dish. As mentioned before, I was too quick to judge this one and instead I was very happy to call it one of my top five experiences of the day.
In my mind I was already questioning how this could get any better, leaving the first ever vegetarian dish that I wanted more of. But onward we traveled until we stopped inside the Pig and Pie to sample our next taste of what the mission had to offer. I must say that I was just as surprised to see this place here as I was surprised to see the Wise Sons Jewish deli, but seeing as how taken aback I was with the dishes sampled so far, I was eagerly awaiting what would come to our table. Some minutes passed before our tour guide placed the dish in front of me: bratwurst and sauerkraut, something that I had never turned down in the past.
Being a San Franciscan at heart (even though I moved out of the city I still refer to myself as a San Franciscan), it was part of life to have hot dogs at Giants games or along the pier every weekend that was nice enough to take a walk. Bratwurst was something that I had not tried until I was much older, ready to graduate from the traditional ball hotdog to the big leagues.The sausage, giant bun, and sauerkraut were all house-made, something that I had been growing very fond of in my time spent here. The pure beef of the link and tart pickle taste of the sauerkraut reminded me of the first time I graduated to eating bratwurst, the sausage standing out in its meaty and hearty taste. I tried to savor each and every bite but my stomach rumbled for more as I finished my half, going so far as to scoop up the remainder of my sauerkraut with a fork, desperate not to waste a single bite. As the consumption of the cupcake earlier had reminded me so vividly of my previous experiences, so had the bratwurst and I can confidently say that I am visiting again in the near future.
I’m not going to lie, the second I stepped off of that BART train, I wanted latin food and I wanted it immediately. Sure the other foods that we tried in between were delicious, but I was now craving the spices of the latin cuisine that I had grown up eating and the constant passing of each corner’s pupusaria was not doing much to help my addiction. But finally as we approached La Palma Mexica-tessen, my wish was fulfilled.
We had previously gone into El Farolito to sample one of the el pastor tacos, and while it was good and originally on my list of favorites the huarache tried at La Palma blew it out of the water. As I learned from our culinary tour guide, a huarache is a term in spanish used for sandal (even though I speak spanish, I had no knowledge of this word because my word for sandal is chancla). The dish is aptly named this for the shaped of the bean-stuffed handmade tortilla resembling the sole of a sandal. And yes, you read this right: handmade tortillas stuffed with beans. This was as similar to a pupusa as I was going to get today and it did not disappoint. Topped off with a mixture of onion, lettuce, latin crema (similar to sour cream), queso fresco (latin cheese used frequently in latino dishes) and two types of salsa, this huaracha was packed to the brim with latin flavors. Both the mild verde and spicy red salsa were enough to balance out the dish with their combined flavors, but add the cold taste of the crema and queso fresco helped to neutralize the spice and keep the dish edible no matter what one’s tolerance for spice was. And maybe I did not get to the pupusaria as I wanted to, but this experience eating my first huaracha was definitely one that I won’t soon forget and got me to try something new in the latino culinary world.
Lastly, I would like to write about my experience with the murals. As I mentioned previously, I am an art practice major and art is always something that I look forward to seeing. This was even more personal, as I am a Latin-American and love to see the art from the countries that my family is from.
The name of the area where we viewed these works is named Balmey Alley, a must-see tourist destination when visiting San Francisco for both artists and non-artists alike. The murals were breath-taking; varying from Latin countries and a melding of different artistic styles throughout. Each mural is painted on the backside of houses, their garages, and the owners help local artists to help preserve the artwork that has been done in the alley so far.
Among my favorite pieces were the two pieces having to do with Oscar Romero from El Salvador, not only because I am Salvadorean, but also because of the personal ties his story and assassination have with my family. For those who are not aware, Romero was a priest who was very influential and famous in El Salvador, bringing the awareness of spiritual guidance to the people of the country and onward advocating peace in the time of the country’s brutal civil. Because of his assassination and the wars that occurred, my mother and her family moved from San Salvador to the US, unable to stay safely in the time of war. My mother still remembers the day that Romero was assassinated in the church and seeing both of these murals was something that may not have been food related, but was something that I identified with for several reasons and it was an emotional experience to see.
So the day had concluded, but not before I got to experience some of the best local food I had ever eaten. And while we did not solely walk into latino restaurants, I enjoyed the experience of heading into places I had never been in and hearing each chef and manager’s reasoning for their business and culinary decisions. It was my first experience in the mission district of San Francisco but it certainly will not be my last and I am already planning when I’ll head back again to try more and more of what the district has to offer.