An Eater’s Guide to San Francisco’s Mission District

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A delicate confection from Tartine, a popular bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District. Photo by lil’bear via flickr CC BY 2.0.

Before venturing out into Valencia Street neighborhoods in San Francisco’s intensely urban Mission District, let me take a step backwards. It was a couple of years ago that I finally made the pilgrimage from Connecticut to the toast-of-the-town new restaurant in New York – the East Coast home of Kung Pao pastrami and schmaltz rice – Mission Chinese Food on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

So I was delighted to find myself recently around the block, literally, from the original Mission Chinese Food on, of all places, Mission Street. I was housesitting for a week while my brother and his wife headed to Brazil for the World Cup. Their flat, off 18th Street between Valencia and Guerrero streets, is prime real estate for walking and dining and window-and-wall and people watching in the Mission.

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The sign for Mission Chinese belies not only its delicious fare, but even the restaurant’s name. Photo by Roland Tanglao via flickr CC BY 2.0.

Mission Chinese, housed in a nondescript, if not forlorn, storefront bearing the deceptive sign, Lung Shan Restaurant, is two blocks from their place, and offers up such signature exotics as beer-brined Sichuan pickles, stir-fried pork jowl with chicharrónes, Beijing vinegar peanuts, and the defining Kung Pao pastrami.

A few blocks away from Mission Chinese is Aslam’s Rasoi on Valencia Street, run by a father and two sons, with a glass-storefront window and piquant Pakistani-Indian kitchen. En route, on 18th Street, in a redolent space no roomier than a walk-in cupboard, Yamo, a Burmese restaurant affording counter-only service, serves up righteously spicy noodle dishes and curries.

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Photo by antischokke via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Just up 18th Street toward Guerrero is Tartine Bakery and Café – try the croissants, gougère, and bread pudding – with customers perpetually queued up on the sidewalk outside the entrance. A few steps away is the venerable Bi-Rite Market, which opened in 1940 and stocks its inviting shelves, cases, bins, and deli counter with all manner of naturals and organics, produce, and packaged as well as freshly baked breads, coffees, teas, chocolates, granolas, and top-shelf processed foods. Bi-Rite also sells Rusty’s Balboa Island Style Chips, the best snacking on the block.

Nearby, at 18th and Guerrero, take a window seat or a chair at the center table in Namu Gaji, which bills itself as Nouveau Korean, and order up Gamja fries, an impressive mound of hand-cut potatoes textured with kewpie, teriyaki, gochujang, kimchee relish, and short ribs.

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Artistic graffiti on building walls is a common characteristic of the Mission. Photo by Steven Slosberg.

There’s sustenance in the neighborhoods for the eye as well. Walking the streets in the Mission, and along Valencia in particular, is a study in facade-scale, brilliantly colored murals and sidewalk graffiti, much of the latter focused on the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

But, without a doubt, the most stunning artwork of all, towering several stories above 18th Street, between Valencia and Guerrero, covers The Women’s Building. Once a meeting hall and bar, the hotel-sized building was purchased by the San Francisco Women’s Centers in 1979 and transformed into a community center for promoting scores of women’s projects.

The Women's Building, a civic resource center, is covered in a brilliant mural that was painted by nine artists in the 1980s.

The Women’s Building, a civic resource center, is covered in a brilliant mural that was painted by seven artists in the 1994. Photo by Jumilla via flickr CC BY 2.0.

In the organization’s words, the Mural MaestraPeace, which was painted by a collaboration of seven women artists in 1994 and covers two sides of the four-story building, “has many messages: the healing power of women’s wisdom over time, the contributions of women throughout history, and the making of history by women from all corners of the earth.”

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Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

The mural features portraits of notable women and spiritual designs and female figures under the radiant depiction of the Goddess of Light and Creativity, whose womb, open to all passers-by, carries a six-month fetus of a girl, “representing the future generations of enlightened women.”

This is San Francisco and this is Valencia Street in the Mission District, and I’ve wandered through very few neighborhoods as beguiling.

Steven Slosberg worked as a journalist for Connecticut newspapers for 35 years, including more than two decades as a columnist for The Day in New London. He also has written book reviews for The New York Times and the Hartford Courant and has published freelance stories in The Times, the Boston Globe, Harvard Magazine, Connecticut Magazine, and Connecticut Explored, among other publications. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and lives in Stonington, CT with his wife, Liesbeth.

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