In my mind the Mission is where you go to get good Mexican Food. The gourmet tour of the Mission District that I took opened up my eyes to a whole new edible experience of the area. The vibrant district is clearly becoming a foodie’s paradise. Our tour started by meeting up with our guide Stephanie Rosenbaum and learning about her background as a food writer. She started writing about food before it was considered a viable career, and she currently writes for Bay Area Bites, a food blog on the KQED website that I adore! Along the way to our first stop, Stephanie gave us insight into the ethics of food writing. She explained how important it is to give a fair review of a restaurant or chef because the livelihoods of people are at stake. You can’t give all good reviews or no one will take you seriously as a reputable writer but you also have to be careful that you don’t misrepresent a restaurant with a bad review.
Our first stop on the tour was the Local Mission Eatery. We walked in and the simple yet beautiful interior set the tone for our visit. Two things immediately stuck out to me as different from most restaurants. One was the clear glass wall of the walk in refrigerator and the other was the open kitchen. It was really refreshing to see all the ingredients out in the open for the customer to see and not hidden from sight as if what goes into the food is a closely guarded secret. My favorite things in the walk in were the in-house pickled vegetables and tuna hearts hanging from the ceiling like little salamis. It was also just fascinating to see the food being cooked right there in front of us. Chef Chad greeted us and explained a little bit of restaurant’s mission. The food they prepare is all locally produced and they aim to be as utilitarian as possible. They try to use every piece of every ingredient and nothing is wasted, not even broccoli stocks. While our food was prepared I perused the cookbook lending library that the restaurant provides for customers who want to expand their recipe repertoire. Chef chad prepared the tour a grilled cheese sandwich from the menu. This was no plain grilled cheese. It had caramelized onions, apple compote and Wagonwheel cheese from the Cowgirl Creamery between two buttery pieces of fresh bread, perfectly browned by the grill. I personally think that caramelized onions make everything taste better. The fruit and rich cheese were an excellent complement to each other in the sandwich. As we wiped off our buttery hands and thanked the chef I knew the rest of the tour was going to be amazing.
Our second stop was a cupcake bakery called Mission Minis. The bakery is an oasis of pink on the fairly average city street. Stephanie told us about the owner who was a musician and wanted a more stable job, so he started making mini cupcakes. There were so many unusual cake flavors that I wanted to try, but I could only choose one. I debated between Swiss Almond Coconut and Aztec Chocolate, and I couldn’t resist picking the chocolate. When I first bit into it the lush buttercream frosting was a nice complement to the combination of chocolate and cinnamon in the moist cake. The next time I go to the Mission I hope they still have the Swiss Almond Coconut flavor. I am still trying to imagine how perfect the flavor combination must be in cupcake form.
A couple blocks away we went to a pop up restaurant called Roxy’s, opened at the beginning of the month by Chef Manny who was inspired to cook a fusion of Venezuelan food prepared with Italian and Japanese technique. The restaurant was less of a restaurant and more of a transitional space for the chef to work on perfecting new dishes that he is inspired to create. The cooking space is especially unique because there is no oven or hooded grill to cook on. He has to be creative and uses non-traditional cooking techniques such as deep frying. The chef creatively served us two Yucca root gnocchi in a Bolognese sauce cooked for six hours and topped with fresh basil and a balsamic reduction. The fusion of the typical South American ingredient into the traditional Italian gnocchi was surprising. As it turns out, the yucca root made the texture of the gnocchi smoother and had less of a chewy bite. The Bolognese was hearty and was more of a rich meat stew infused with tomato that accompanied the gnocchi than a humble sauce enrobing the little yucca dumplings. The brightness of the basil complimented the richness of the other ingredients nicely as well. I wanted to stay there and eat a heaping bowl full of the dish but it was time to move on to the next stop on the tour.
On our next tour stop we went to a Jewish deli called Wise Sons Delicatessen. The owners, Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman started the deli as a pop up because there were no good Jewish delis in San Francisco. Neither of them had any experience with cooking traditional Jewish foods like challa and matzo ball soup but the men experimented and now people flock to the deli for their pickles and pastrami. While we waited for our pastrami sandwiches, a plate of pickles was brought out for us to enjoy. I don’t usually enjoy pickles but I am willing to try anything. These pickles were unlike any I have had before. They were briney and unbelievably crunchy with a nice dill flavor. Then our sandwiches piled high with pink pastrami between homemade rye bread came out to us. The still warm meat was extremely juicy and had a salty kick. With our fourth stop complete I was getting a little full and Stephanie told us we had three more stops, so I was happy when we paused our eating to admire some of the beautiful murals on Balmy Alley. I never knew there was so much history and meaning behind the artwork on the buildings throughout the Mission.
My favorite stop on our tour was next, Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream. Stephanie told us that the shop was not named after a “Humphry Slocombe.” The name comes from combining the last names of two characters on a television show called “Are You Being Served?”, which happens to be my favorite British sitcom. The flavors of ice cream at Humphry Slocombe are wild. They are known for a flavor called Secret Breakfast which is a bourbon ice cream with corn flakes mixed in. I tasted a Basil Lime flavor which was cool and refreshing but I ultimately chose to try a cup of Balsamic Caramel ice cream. The flavor of the balsamic vinegar came through the caramel nicely without being too harsh or overpowering it. The caramel was pleasantly sweet while not being sickeningly sweet like some caramel ice creams can be. I could not have chosen a better flavor.
We continued our tour at a restaurant called Pig and Pie where, you guessed it, you can get homemade pork sausages and pies. The interior of the restaurant was homey and made me want to sit down and enjoy a long meal with friends. There is a colorful display of different pickled vegetables and a chalkboard menu on wood paneled walls gives the place a rustic feel, much different than any other restaurant I have been to in the Mission District. The Chef was very nice and explained how they make all their own sausages and sauerkraut. I have heard of very few places that make their own sausages. I really like the idea of knowing exactly what goes into a sausage because so often it is like eating mystery meat or as my Grandmother used to say, everything the butcher swept up off the floor. We were served one of their homemade sausages on a soft roll topped with homemade sauerkraut and mustard. I am not a big fan of sauerkraut but the sausage was perfectly hot and charred from the grill. It was a little bit sweet and salty with seasoning blend that I could not put my finger on, fennel perhaps? The bread was soft and fresh and created a nice canvas for all the other competing flavors. I was hoping to get a taste of some of their pie, but no such luck. It was probably best anyway because I was so full and I knew I needed to save room for the last stop on our tour.
After so much other excellent food I had high hopes for our last stop, a Mexican restaurant called Taquerias el Farolito. We sat down and cups of horchata, a sweet rice drink, were brought out for us to enjoy. It was milky and the flavor of cinnamon shown through. Then, out came our tacos. As soon as I saw the saucy meat I knew they were going to be delicious. Al pastor, a marinated pork, on two corn tortillas was topped with finely chopped white onion and cilantro. The flavorful marinade on the pork was spicy so the horchata was a refreshing complement. What an excellent end to a great day of eating. I can’t wait for what’s in store for me on the next gourmet tour!