SF’s Mission: The Land of Wonders

I love to eat. Ever since I was old enough to fund my own cheeseburger, I’ve been a street-foraging foodie, diligently and doggedly seeking out the best morsels in every category. This habit began when I was a student, so although I’ve done plenty of upscale dining in the intervening years, I’ve always had a special affection for the smaller, funkier, more tucked-away places. Both because I could afford them on a student’s whip-thin budget, and because they tended to serve the “ethnic” foods my curious palate craved. I went to school in Fort Lauderdale, and there were always lots of options: Mexican, Cuban, Indian, Jamaican and Japanese restaurants abounded, along with the more commonplace Italian and Chinese offerings.

Naturally, moving to San Francisco was a revelation. Fortuitously, one of my responsibilities at my first job in the city was ferreting out the newest, best restaurants in the coolest neighborhoods. As you might guess I excelled at this job, and to one extent other, I’ve been doing it ever since.

When I arrived, my best friend in the city lived on Church Street just south of Market, in the lively gap between the Mission and Castro districts. These became my first stomping grounds, and when it came to food, to me the Mission was the Land of Wonders. The Mexican food on its own was an epiphany, but when the burrito fatigue did finally set in, there was just so much more to discover. Today’s article honors 10 delicious things, all of which I crave every time I find myself anywhere south of 12th Street.

The Mission: when burrito fatigue sets in, there is just so much more to discover Click to Tweet

Lamb Shawarma at Truly Mediterranean

This was one of my first loves when I arrived in the Mission District at the end of the 90’s, and it still tops my list today. A closet of a location that might seat three people inside, Truly Med warrants mention for its excellent lavash bread, fiery red hot sauce, and some of the best falafel and shawarma you can find anywhere. Lamb shawarma is my go-to, and I get a smear of smoky baba ganoush on mine. Say “yes” to the hot sauce, and do be prepared for the sauce to be hot. So. Damn. Good.

Truly Mediterranean Falafel - Joe Content

The Photogenic Falafel At Truly Mediterranean

I used to routinely put one of these in my carry-on when flying out to the East Coast. Boy, the looks you get from the other passengers when you break one of these babies out at 30,000 feet. And lest we forget the vegetarians, the falafel here is great, too.
Truly Mediterranean, 3109 16th Street

Country White Bread at Tartine Bakery

Forewarning: this is not the easiest bread to get your hands on. The line at Tartine Bakery stretches down the block, and there is only one baking for bread (last I checked, it was coming out at 5 pm). If you don’t have a loaf reserved there is no guarantee you’re getting one. I know, I know.

But ask yourself: why would people ever line up like this, reserve over the phone 72 hours in advance (yep, they do it) and basically prostrate themselves to this bakery for a loaf of bread? It’s simple: this is the best bread in San Francisco (they have a Bay Area equal in Della Fattoria, but they’re all the way up in Petaluma). The crust, the pillowy interior and the flavor of this bread are all exquisite, and when you walk out with a hot loaf, you are committing a grave sin if you don’t break off a chunk and devour it immediately. Pro Tip:  the Tartine team recently opened a second spot at Tartine Manufactory in nearby Potrero Hill with multiple bakings, and loaves available starting at 10:30 am. Yes!
Tartine Bakery, 600 Guerrero Street

Carne Asada Super Burrito at La Espiga de Oro

As a proud arriviste San Franciscan, I love burritos. When my brother lived here years before I did, he used to bring a dozen of them home in his carry-on when he visited (evidently it’s genetic), and we’d eat them for days. When I finally moved here, I put on a good ten pounds of burrito weight inside of six months. The only thing to save me from obesity was my discovery of tacos.

That being said, I am ever on the lookout for stellar food-tubes. Of course, you can’t swing a dead cat in the Mission without hitting a Mexican restaurant, so the competition is pretty stiff. There are a few obvious A-listers, but you probably already know about those. Here’s one I bet you don’t: La Espiga de Oro, hiding in plain sight on the sleepy Potrero end of 24th Street. The name translates as “the ear of gold,” referring to corn–they grind their own masa here every day.

But my reason for coming isn’t masa; I’m here for the Carne Asada Super Burrito. Unlike the typical Mission spot where they slap your burrito together behind a sneezeguard in 30 seconds or less, La Espiga de Oro has a closed kitchen….and they take their sweet time. On my first visit, after ten minutes I almost asked the cashier what had happened to my order. I mean, what the hell were they doing back there? Making me the perfect asada burrito, it turns out. I walked that beast over to the park, found a bench in the sun, and blissed out. All highly recommended.
La Espiga de Oro, 2916 24th Street

Brunch at Craftsman & Wolves

The newest entry on the list, Craftsman & Wolves is an upscale bakery that first got my attention at the Ferry Building farmer’s market with ‘The Rebel Within,’ an asiago and sausage muffin with a still-soft egg expertly baked into its center. Delish but pricey, and not until I visited their brick and mortar spot on Valencia did I fully appreciate their talents.

Craftsman & Wolves - Joe Content - Table of Content

The Spacious Modern Interior at Craftsman & Wolves

I landed there on a rainy Sunday morning a few weeks back with my sister, fresh off the plane on a visit from the islands. We picked this spot because we had only one umbrella. I chose the pulled pork sandwich and Jen went with the vegetable quiche, and both were superb and ample for the price. Of course the lines for brunch in the Mission are brutal, and the pastries are as pretty as the patrons–so you’re almost certain to grab one after staring at them for 15 minutes. These guys have mastered the brunch-as-loss-leader approach. Check it out.
Craftsman & Wolves, 746 Valencia Street

Carnitas Taco at El Gallo Giro

I am a staunch devotee of the food truck, and have been fascinated by them ever since my first trip to Los Angeles in the late 90’s. Food trucks are serving some of best casual food in the Bay Area today, and along with farmer’s markets, they’ve become a crucial point of entry for aspiring restaurateurs.

Carnitas Taco at El Gallo Giro - Joe Content - Table of Content

The Transcendent Carnitas Taco at El Gallo Giro

My ultimate favorite: El Gallo Giro. This little truck has been at the corner of 23rd and Treat Streets for so long, they have the address painted on the side of the truck. For years they’ve been my regular taco spot whenever I find myself in the Mission, and I used to invariably get the al Pastor–my favorite, and EGG serves one of the best iterations in the city. One day I decided to change it up and try the carnitas. It was the best carnitas taco I’d ever had, and to this day I consider this truck to be ground zero for Mission tacos–and they are really nice people, too. Open every day but Sunday.
El Gallo Giro, Treat Street at 23rd

If you're hungry and in The Mission, check this list: 10 Things To Eat In The #Mission Right Now Click to Tweet

Tesora with Chocolate Kouign Amann at Philz Coffee, O.G. Location

I’ve been traveling to this Philz for coffee since it was their only location, and still have a soft spot for the place. Sure, I can just walk down to Market Street now, and I’ve even got two spots to choose from (appreciate that, Phil!). But there is something about the original spot, with its mismatched furniture, weird art and hyperlocal vibe, that just can’t be duplicated.

There are a lot of tasty things to be had here, and if you’re somehow still among the uninitiated, the coffee is fantastic. Drip is the thing here, creamier than any you’ve ever had, and my drug of choice is the Tesora, Philz’ original blend. It is a buttery, nutty and unique cup that can only be improved with a spoonful of honey–and of course, a delicious fresh pastry. Cue the chocolate kouign amann, courtesy of Starter Bakery: a caramel-drizzled wonder studded with chunks of dark chocolate, there is no more indulgent way to start your day. C’mon, just hit the gym at lunch…
Philz Coffee, 3101 24th Street

Wild Boar Sausage at Rosamunde

I am a huge fan of Toronado, the legendary taproom in the Lower Haight, and that’s where I was first introduced to the talented sausagemakers at Rosamunde. There is nothing better than a sausage to accompany a quality craft beer, and I immediately fell in love with their Wild Boar Sausage: perfectly spiced and rounded out with a hint of apple and cranberry, it requires only grill marks and a pile of sauerkraut to achieve perfection on a bun.

The Wild Boar Sausage at Rosamunde - Joe Content - Table of Content

The Wild Boar Sausage at Rosamunde

Good sausage has no borders, and they’ve since expanded to five locations, including two in the East Bay and one all the way over in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When they opened this spot just below 24th on Mission Street, they further complicated my lunch choices in this option-laden neighborhood. Not a meat person? You’re in luck: they’ve also got three vegan versions, including apple sage and an Italian that’s made with red wine, fennel and garlic. Buona.
Rosamunde, 2832 Mission Street

Chicharrones Tacos at La Palma Mexicatessen

As I make this list, I reflect on the many happy days I’ve spent wandering this neighborhood, exploring the graffiti-filled alleyways, people-watching, drinking….and eating tacos. Of all the spots that come to mind, there is one that is truly unique: La Palma Mexicatessen. Falling somewhere between a grocer, a deli counter and a taqueria, La Palma has more delicious things under one roof than one can absorb in a single visit. If you like to cook the place is a dream, and it’s even better if you’d rather not: they’ve got the best fresh tortillas anywhere (they supply many of SF’s best taquerias), as well as cold cases full of delicious salsas and guacamole.

The Awe-Inspiring Chicharrones Taco at La Palma Mexicatessen - Joe Content - Table of Content

The Awe-Inspiring Chicharrones Taco at La Palma Mexicatessen

And they’ve also got a kitchen full of smiling ladies, busily cranking out some of the best homestyle Mexican you’ll find anywhere. There is no going wrong here, but what I crave most are the chicharrones tacos: made of pig skin slow-cooked until tender and moist, these are topped with cilantro, salsa and onion, and no less than perfect. Pro Tip:  if you’re eating at home, they offer fresh carnitas by the pound.  Lord help me.
La Palma Mexicatessen, 2884 24th Street

Dosas at Udupi Palace

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include these guys, especially for all of you vegans and vegetarians out there (I realize this list has been a tad carne-centric). Just a block past the popular Dosa on Valencia, Udupi Palace serves some of the best vegetarian South Indian cuisine in the city, and they’ve earned a rabid local following. There are plenty of good things to be had here, but the focus is on the dosas: delicate, crispy pancakes made with a lentil and rice batter, these are typically stuffed with potato and onion, but come in a variety of styles. These dosas are excellently prepared, and superior to any in the neighborhood–but be warned, this is spicy food. Pro Tip:  Udupi is a find, but don’t expect the most attentive service (and it’s cash only).
Udupi Palace, 1007 Valencia Street

Vegetarian Burrito at Taqueria Cancún

OK, you’ve probably heard about this place a million times, but there is no way I could exclude Taqueria Cancún from this list. Cancún was the first place I had the full Mission Burrito experience years ago, and it remains my pick for one of my favorite Mexican items: the Vegetarian Burrito.

A no-nonsense affair loaded with rice, plump beans, cheese, onions, cilantro, salsa, sour cream and fresh avocado, this is an imposingly large burrito. Each one is lightly grilled to perfection, and served with pico de gallo, salsa verde and a side of chips–all for under 9 bucks. I’ve got a frightening appetite, and this thing threatens to best me every time I visit. Not to be missed.
Taqueria Cancún, 2288 Mission Street