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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.