Food & Drink

Take a tasting tour of S.F.’s Mission District

Bi-Rite Market front of house manager Alex Mayer passes out sweet fresh strawberries from JW Farms in Watsonville to group members of Avital company's Mission District Food Tour in San Francisco.
Bi-Rite Market front of house manager Alex Mayer passes out sweet fresh strawberries from JW Farms in Watsonville to group members of Avital company's Mission District Food Tour in San Francisco. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

It was one of those recent unseasonably warm Saturday mornings, when city-dwellers evacuate their homes and pour onto the streets, blinking in the sunlight but intent on basking in a fogless day.

We had headed to the Bay to take a food walking tour through a small slice of the Mission District, the city’s oldest neighborhood, visiting places that are more hip than rustic. For instance, a charcuterie-and-cheese bar rather than a mom-and-pop taqueria. We could have chosen the much more touristy Chinatown or North Beach tours, but we felt drawn to the Mission and its cultural confluences, a place that feels like a real working neighborhood rather than a stop for tour buses.

Also, it clearly represents the ongoing conflict of gentrification vs. tradition, as another wave of affluence has followed the influx of Silicon Valley tech workers. In the face of that, the Mission struggles to preserve its blue-collar Latino heritage. A sign in the window of one house is indicative of the battle between the old and the disruptive new: “40 years of living in this house … I am not going anywhere.”

That morning, throngs of locals and sightseers packed the bakeries, sipped small-batch coffees and planned the day with their friends. The Mission’s new vibe is personified by those just-hangin’-out 20- and 30-somethings with cash to burn, and the trendy businesses that cater to them. Those include restaurants, of course, for to be a techie is to be a foodie. Stroll the ’hood and you’ll find the upscale likes of Craftsman and Wolves, Wise Sons Deli, Flour + Water, Bar Tartine, Lolo, Beso, Vestry and more.

Still, it’s a neighborhood with bodegas, laundromats, consignment stores and the like. Enterprising locals set up impromptu stands on sidewalks, selling fresh pineapple and mango and pork-filled pupusas. Joggers with their dogs on leashes beat the weekend invasion by trotting before 8 a.m.

Gathered in front of the landmark Women’s Building at 3543 18th St. (between Valencia and Guerrero streets) were a dozen culinarily curious adventurers, meeting for a food-tasting tour organized by Avital Food Tours, one of the many San Francisco companies that specialize in food-tasting walking tours. The toll is $76, increasing to $94 with the optional “alcohol upgrade” (drinks at two of the stops).

During our three-hour trek, guide Keila Morris led us to four destinations where we sampled bites and sips. Along the way, we paused on side streets while the charming “infotainer” filled us in on local lore.

To start, we stepped around a corner to reconnoiter and view the four-story “Women’s Wisdom Through Time” mural, painted by seven women in 1994. Then, by way of introduction, we announced our names and where we’re from – Oakland, Burlingame, San Bruno, Phoenix, Rocklin, Sacramento.

“We’re going to start with a breakfast taco and bloody Marys and end the day with salted caramel ice cream,” Morris told us in excited tones, then asked, “What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever eaten?”

“Escargot,” said one tourer.

Dinuguan,” said another, referring to the Filipino stew of offal and pig’s blood.

“Grasshopper tacos in Mexico,” volunteered a third.

“I traveled through Asia and once ate boiled silkworms,” Morris said.

“Did you have any fried tarantulas there?” someone asked.

“No, but I’ll add them to my list,” Morris answered. “Do they come on a stick?”

With appetites whetted, we set out for our first stop, West of Pecos. Along the way, Morris noted that the Mission’s food-scene transformation was sparked in 1998, when Charles Phan opened his James Beard Award-winning Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door, since relocated to the Ferry Building Marketplace.

“It started pulling people into the Mission, and (the district) became home to some of San Francisco’s most creative chefs,” she said.

Later, she would say of her job, “The best parts are connecting with people from all over the world, meeting restaurant owners and sharing the culture of the neighborhood.”

West of Pecos is straight out of the Southwest, decorated with hanging bunches of chili peppers and mounted rattlesnake skins. The menu reflects that spirit – coffee-rubbed brisket hash, fried chicken with churros – but the California twist shows itself in such dishes as kale Caesar salad tostadas.

A long table had been reserved for us. Bloody Marys arrived, made with tequila and cherry-tomato juice, followed by Austin-style breakfast tacos – maple-glazed pork belly on top of scrambled egg, with cheese, salsa, avocado and chipotle aioli on a flour tortilla. The laughter and conversation increased among the tourers as they loosened up. What better way to bond with strangers?

Morris kept us engaged, talking about the restaurant’s history and asking our opinions. Co-owner Tyler MacNiven appeared, charming the group. “The hardest part of my job is having to fly around the West and eat,” he said, sparking a round of good-natured comments.

MacNiven grew up working in his parents’ restaurant, the rustic Buck’s in Woodside, a rural town that’s home to cowboys and venture capitalists alike. He staked his claim to fame in 2006 when he and a teammate won the $1 million grand prize on Season 9 of “The Amazing Race.”

Now he’s in the restaurant business with his two brothers (“It’s a lifestyle”), and they relish the food tour’s involvement. “Word of mouth is gold,” he said. “It’s the original social networking.”

Back on the street, the tourers chatted with each other as we made for the second destination, Mission Cheese.

It was tourer Greg Capra’s birthday, so Jocelyn Del Campo had planned a special weekend in San Francisco. “We love to eat, so I looked online and found this food tour,” she said. Del Campo’s a registered nurse, Capra’s a civil engineer, and both are from Rocklin.

“I hope the other restaurants are as wonderful as that first stop,” said Philip White of San Bruno. He’s a retired school principal who was touring with his wife, Janet.

“We’ve enjoyed other walking tours in San Francisco, and this one is right up our alley,” said Janet White, a retired schoolteacher. “I haven’t been in the Mission for a very long time, and it’s changed so much.”

We paused in front of Mission Cheese as Morris told us about co-owner Sarah Dvorak (with husband Oliver Dameron), who engineered a “corporate escape” from her job to fulfill her “mission” to become a cheesemonger. (It’s fitting but coincidental that Mission Cheese is in the Mission District.) En route, she visited dairy farms in 13 states and now deals exclusively in American artisan cheeses, stocking 70 at a time from a rotating supply of 300.

“These are the nerdiest folks on the tour,” Morris joked before we went inside. “If you have any burning cheese question, now’s the time to ask.”

Seats had been reserved at the cheese-charcuterie bar, and soon cheesemonger Matt Gill was passing around slices of sheep’s milk cheese from Golden Valley Farm in Chowchilla, and glasses of amber ale from Drake’s Brewing Co. in San Leandro. “I will talk until you stop me, so feel free to interrupt,” he said.

The impassioned Gill touched on flavor profiles, curd size, acids and sugars, the difference between raw and pasteurized milks, European butter, what makes cheese yellow (dye), how to store cheese at home and how to properly taste it (“Chew it until you can rub it between your tongue and your palate”).

Next, we followed Morris to Gracias Madre, a vegan Mexican restaurant. But first we paused at a few more murals, among the 450-plus that make the Mission an outdoor art gallery.

“We decided to do something different and take this tour,” said Phoenix-based attorney Stephanie Preciado. She and her two friends were celebrating a birthday with a mini-vacation in San Francisco. “We’re foodies back home, and this has been fantastic. The educational stuff is cool, especially the tidbits about the neighborhood and about what we’re eating.”

Jim Beck of Oakland lived in the Mission in the 1970s and 1980s. “It’s nice to come back and see how the character of the neighborhood has changed,” said the retired AT&T executive. “The tour is very informative, with a nice variety of food and a good level of local information, which is fun.”

Tables were waiting at Gracias Madre (as in, “Thank you, Mother Earth”). But first we assembled by the huge open kitchen and watched cooks prepare our roasted butternut squash quesadillas with cashew nacho cheese, paired with house-made pineapple soda.

“Some people don’t know what veganism is,” manager Mike Agundez said. “They think it’s an ingredient you put in the food. But a lot of them get curious, come in and end up loving our quality. The owners grow a lot of our produce on their Be Love farm near Vacaville.”

Our final stop was the Bi-Rite Market, a foodie’s dream-come-true, where beehives are maintained on the building’s roof. We stood out front and watched about 75 people enter and exit within 15 minutes.

“The Bi-Rite is a cornerstone of the Mission,” Morris said. “It started with only three employees and now has 150. They’re all about creating quality relationships with their producers, even giving some of them the keys to the front door so they can drop off the freshest produce at 11 p.m.”

Just then a bedraggled woman in her 50s wobbled by, splitting our semicircle of tourers, dragging a blanket – with clothing and personal effects lying on top – behind. We watched silently, momentarily pushed out of our foodie bubble and reminded that people with far bigger struggles than ours make the Mission their home.

One of the Bi-Rite managers, Alex Mayer, joined us for an infomercial while passing around sweet strawberries from Watsonville. “They came off the farm this morning,” she said.

The market opened in 1940 and was sold to the Mogannam family in 1964. After taking the reins from his father in 1997, current owner and former restaurateur/chef Sam Mogannam transformed it from a sleepy neighborhood market into a dynamic institution. Wisely, the original neon sign and art deco facade were left standing.

“Everyone’s in the store now, getting their beer and sandwiches to go have fun in Dolores Park,” Mayer said.

The Bi-Rite is one of many supply sources for the thousands of people from around the city who gather at the nearby 14-acre open space on weekends to create a scene resembling a 1960s Bill Graham rock concert, sans the Grateful Dead. As a $20 million renovation project continues, so do the park’s rat and trash problems. It’s estimated that nearly 15,000 cubic yards of garbage are removed from it each year, one more Hot Button Issue in a city wearily rife with them.

Morris gave us 10 minutes to “swirl around the store,” and we marveled over the deli counter, the produce bins and the grab ’n’ go meals.

We walked across the street to the offshoot Bi-Rite Creamery & Bake Shop, which sources organic cream, milk and eggs for its ice cream from the Straus Family Creamery in Marin County. To avoid standing in the long line, we waited in the shade of massive trees while Morris went inside for a tray of delicious salted-caramel ice cream in cups.

As we dug in, Morris reminded us that the nearby landmark Mission Dolores has the oldest cemetery in San Francisco.

“People are dying to get in there,” she quipped, and the group laughed. Then: “I had only one cheesy joke this whole tour, so it’s not that bad, right?”

“So the cemetery’s in the dead center of town?” someone threw out.

More laughter as Morris replied, “Too bad we didn’t have more cheesy jokes at Mission Cheese. Yeah.”

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Mission food tour stops

Avital Tours’ four-stop, three-hour food-tasting walk in the Mission District is $76 (415-355-4044, www.avitaltours.com). These were the restaurants along our route:

▪ West of Pecos, 550 Valencia St.; (415) 252-7000, www.westofpecos.com

▪ Mission Cheese, 736 Valencia St.; (415) 553-8667, www.missioncheese.net

▪ Gracias Madre, 2211 Mission St.; (415) 683-1346, www.gracias-madre.com

▪ Bi-Rite Market, 3639 18th St.; (415) 241-9760, www.biritemarket.com

▪ Bi-Rite Creamery & Bake Shop, 3692 18th St.; (415) 626-5600, www.biritecreamery.com

▪ Precita Eyes Muralists conducts tours of the Mission’s 450-plus murals; 2981 24th St., (415) 285-2287, www.precitaeyes.org

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments