When we lived in the San Francisco East Bay (a total of about 6 years between 1990 and 2002) we were lazy. LA-ZY! I can probably count on my fingers and toes the number of times that we made it across the Bay Bridge for fun (Dave went in 5 days a week as did I, for a period, for work).
There are good reasons for this. The East Bay boasts what was, for years, the area's very best cheese store (The Cheeseboard, where they don't just let you taste, they insist on it!) and tapas bar (Cesar) and what still is, I would wager, the best place to buy fresh pasta and macaroons (Phoenix). And too many great restaurants to list. The East Bay's weather rules. Folks unfamiliar with the meteorlogical vagaries of San Francisco (the summers are colder than the autumns, for one) might not appreciate this ... but we used to stand in the hot sun on our front porch and watch the fog roll in - over the City, into the Bay - and then stop, just stop and hang there, where it would stay all day. We'd laugh, do hi-fives, and then head out with the dog for a glorious run in the East Bay hills (100+ miles of trails, trailhead exactly ten minutes from our house), followed by a slice of Cheeseboard pizza. Smugness really stokes the appetite.
Still, we do regret - at least a little bit - missing opportunities. We should have taken in, during those years, more of what San Francisco has to offer. Now, when we go back to the US for a visit, we make up for it. We stay on the foggy side of the Bay, run the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf, and follow our noses to the sea lions. We do the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmer's market and upscale restaurants. And we seek out, in the City's 'hoods, tastes that we'll never in a million years find here at home in Asia.
Which brings us to the Mission. A few Sundays ago, after Dave had done his out-of-the-hotel-at-6am-with-my-camera thing, after I started my day on a bench by the Bay with a latte from our beloved Peet's and freshly squeezed blood orange juice from a Ferry Plaza shop, we headed to the San Francisco Mission district to take in its community murals and hunt down a Salvadorean tamale.
The Mission has been a predominantly Latino area of San Francisco since the 1970's, and the murals there go back almost as far.
They are everywhere - on the sides of buildings, on fences, overlooking a playground, and lining a narrow through street (between 24th and 25th) called Balmy Alley. They are amazing, both for detail and range of subject matter, which touches upon the political, the cultural, the historical.
Nonetheless, we got an eyeful.
Oh, by the way - we ate well too.
Twenty-fourth Street is the place to head if serious mural viewing is on the agenda. And it's possible, with an adventurous spirit and an empty stomach, to eat one's way from the 24th Street Bart Station up eight or so blocks.
We started with a panaderia (bakery) at 24th and York called La Mexicana and, applying the method we often employ here in Malaysia, when faced with way too many kuih to choose from, bought one of nearly everything. Unfortunately we know the Mexican names of nothing that we tasted, but we do recall that La Mexicana's version of the delicate pastry sometimes called 'elephant ears' was spot-on, shatteringly crisp, crackly layers glazed with just the right amount of sugar.
Further down the street (toward Mission), this sign for a BBQ place caught our eye. It's a little sick, if you really think about it, but its folk art-iness suggests that deliciousness lies within the walls on which it was painted. It was closed, unfortunately.
We drowned our sorrow in more pastries, this time at La Victoria, on the corner of 24th and Alabama. We'd had more than our fair share of sweet stuff at this point but the seductive window display was impossible to resist. (Note the pineapple tarts in the lower left corner of the photo.)
La Victoria has a great vibe about it. It's an old-style panaderia cum coffee shop (the blackboard menu lists espresso, cappucino, etc.), great for takeaway but with a few tables to eat in, staffed by young hipsters but frequented by old-timers. Everything looked tempting but we limited ourselves to a ricotta tart (below, lower right) and a pre-wrapped slice of Mexican bread pudding. The tart was superb - light but very cheesey, with a flaky crust - and the pudding incredible, moist and studded with cheese and raisins and fragrant with cinammon. One piece could easily have served four as an after-meal treat. I would return to the Mission for La Victoria's bread pudding alone.
When I went to the counter to pay for my sweets I was dismayed to see several types of fresh tamales for sale. With no kitchen to take them home to I couldn't takeaway. And I was unable to enjoy one in situ because we were headed across the street to La Palma Mexica-tessen for something I dream of often here in Kuala Lumpur: freshly made, hand-patted corn tortillas.
Kudos to the La Palma folks for allowing Dave to take photos. They said 'no' at first request, then quickly reconsidered and invited him behind the counter. We don't know La Palma's history, but we do know the tortillas are luscious.
They're available for purchase, by the bag, or to eat right there, with a choice of taco fillings.
It really doesn't get much better than this (unless you are in Mexico, or at Chicago's Sunday Maxwell Street market, I would suppose): supple corn tortillas, made to order, topped with chunks of tender pork stewed in green sauce, a dash of zippy tomato salsa, and a sprinkle of cilantro. La Palma makes each taco with two tortillas, to prevent accidents and shirt-soiling messes (it works!). We appreciate the extra dose of richly corn-y masa flavor. We had some lovely meals in San Francisco, but this was probably, next to the porchetta, the best thing we put in our mouths that weekend. Heavenly.
And substantial. Probably too substantial, given that we were headed up Mission Street to El Zocalo (3230 Mission Street, tel. 415-282-2572) for Salvadorean tamale. The place was recommended to us by our hotel's doorman, who'd grown up in the Mission, the son of immigrants from El Salvador. We figured that when it came to Salvadorean food he probably knew a thing or two.
Mexican tamale, with their thick corn wrappers and usually spicy fillings (I love them) are an entirely different animal to the Salvadorean tamale. Salvadorean cooks somehow transform masa into an ethereally light wrapper. El Zocalo's version consists of mildly seasoned (Salvadorean tamale usually are) tomatoey potato and chicken filling encased in a skin so airy it could almost be custard. These tamale should be experienced for their incredible texture alone.
We left the restaurant stuffed, happy, and wondering how we could possible work up an appetite for dinner, Dave's last of the trip, at a San Francisco institution . (Happily, we managed.)