Digital painting/collage of afternoon tea in Polk Gulch
San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, each with its unique set of characters, cafés, dress codes, and amenities. Noe Valley is filled with young families and tech boomers just a little more conservative than the Mission set, but tons more Bohemian than the Pac Heights folks. And within larger neighborhoods, such as the Mission and the Sunset, there also exist a number of distinct microhoods, often complete with a full set of neighborhood resources.
Look at a tourist map of San Francisco and you’ll see labels for well-known neighborhoods such as North Beach or Russian Hill. But you’ll rarely see delineations for the districts that wedge in between them, such as the hipster area that locals call the Tendernob (in between the Tenderloin and Nob Hill). One of the more mercurial in-betweens is the microhood that some call “Polk Gulch.” If you search for it now on Google Maps, you might see a lone marker at Sacramento and Polk Streets. But if you physically stand at that corner, you’ll likely be underwhelmed. Polk Gulch isn’t a tourist destination spot. Selfishly, Jeff and I sincerely hope it stays this way.
Wedged between the Tenderloin, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and the Van Ness corridor, it turns out that Polk Gulch reveals its charms as you get to know the merchants. They consist of a diverse group of local business owners connected through their not-so-lyrically named “Polk District Merchants Association.”
Facing north in the middle of the un-touristy microhood of Polk Gulch.
Though at first you might only notice the bars, bodegas and tobacco shops, this is a neighborhood where you can actually run a bunch of errands fairly efficiently. Get your clocks fixed at Clock World, donate your clothes to Out of the Closet, pick up anything you might need at Brownie’s Hardware, see some lovely affordable local art at STUDIO Gallery, and end with a great cup of tea at Leland Tea Company. Parking isn’t awful, and there’s fairly good access via Muni buses (Polk 19, California 1, Van Ness 49 & 47). You can even get here via the “California and Van Ness” cable car.
For efficiency-sake, Jeff and I usually walk up on one side of the street, then come back on the other side. There are dozens of small independent businesses along this portion of Polk Street, but because the storefronts aren’t fancied-up for the tourist trade, it’s easy to pass right by something interesting. You’ll find your own discoveries along the way, but I’ll point out of few of our favorite spots. For this first stroll [map], start on the east side of Polk Street, at Bush Street, heading north (away from downtown). North of Bush, on the 1400 block you’ll find the first two of the neighborhood’s three thrift stores. We’ve both bought and sold clothes at the Fashion Exchange, which is fairly well packed with merchandise. The less-discriminating Out of the Closet is a local charity serving the AIDS community-great when you are looking for a place to make clothing donations (they have a loading dock behind the store).
Continuing north on Polk,cross California Street, then keep an eye out for the easy-to-miss City Discount (1542 Polk). This small store is a fun and reasonably priced kitchen supply store, with a hand-picked selection of Italian food products. On an early trip there we found an organic Italian farro pasta (spelt) recommended by the owner’s mom. It’s so super-delicious that we’ve since ordered it by the case.
If you didn’t know to look out for it, you could easily walk by City Discount, directly across the street from Brownie’s Hardware.
Continue north and poke around in the stores on the next couple of blocks. At the corner of Jackson Street you’ll find the third and probably the most “selective” of the Polk Gulch used clothing stores. Town School Clothes Closet (1850 Polk Street) is a medium-sized, well-organized store, with good quality items. I’ve gotten a couple of great bargains here, somehow wandering by twice while they were having a 50% off EVERYTHING sale.
When you cross the street at Jackson, you’ll notice that this is the first block from which you can see the Bay over the crest of the hill. Instead of continuing north where the neighborhood slowly gentrifies, Jeff and I usually cross here and start to head back toward downtown. You’ll find several small businesses on this block between Jackson and Washington, including the small STUDIO Gallery (1815 Polk). When Jeff and I first meandered in, we were very impressed by the quality of the local work being curated by owners Jennifer and Rab. I’ve now had the pleasure of being included in three of their group shows: their annual Tiny show (works 6” x6” or smaller and under $400); and two of their themed San Francisco shows entitled Delicious: work inspired by food & drink. Running through April 1, 2012, the current Delicious show includes a few of my “digital paintings with traditional collage and watercolor pencil” ; three of the pieces are actually adapted from images made for Untapped Cities’ Good Food in the Microhood (one for an upcoming article).
Three of my digital paintings with watercolor pencil (mounted on board) included in the STUDIO Gallery exhibit Delicious: work inspired by food & drink, through April 1, 2012
click here for a selection of works from the STUDIO Gallery Delicious show
As you continue heading south on Polk Street, on the corner of Sacramento and Polk, stop at Brownie’s Hardware, in business since 1905. The staff is super helpful, and even if you don’t need anything inside, the storefront windows always have installations of reading material on little-known San Francisco history-assembled by Brownie’s owner, Stephen Cornell (the unofficial neighborhood historian).
If you have any shopping energy left, stop in at Leftovers furniture consignment shop. Even though it recently moved around the corner from Polk Street, it’s still just a few steps away. At 1414 Van Ness, between Austin and Bush, Leftovers is one of those chock-a-block consignment places, perfect for finding that affordable tag-sale-type item and easier than trolling Craigslist.
The Leland Tea Company (in the Leland Building), an urban oasis in Polk Gulch
A visit to this neck of the woods never feels complete without a stop at the Leland Tea Company. Here at 1416 Bush Street, with Tony Bennett or Edith Piaf wafting gently in the background, you’ll see photos and mementos of both old San Francisco and Paris. Though it feels like Leland Tea has been there forever, owner Will and his artist friends apparently created the illusion in just a few weeks on a tight budget. As if the space were a theater set, the artistic touches include copper paint coating ugly pipes and textured wallpaper creating a faux pressed-tin ceiling. What looks like an antique floor mosaic was created from old magazine pages covered with coats of varnish. In this charming neighborhood spot, patrons feel at home. Locals stay as long as they want, sipping the endless pots of house-blend, highly caffeinated tea. Will’s mom makes the butterscotch scones that Jeff craves. But at Leland Tea, it is mostly about the teas. At the café, we drink the house blend, but there’s a very large selection of custom-blended teas in canisters (discount for refills), all sniffable, and for sale at very reasonable prices. I’m particularly fond of the “Bogart blend” on cold afternoons at home when the fog blows in. Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to stop in at Leland on a day when Will’s mom is making soup. Will says he has to trick her into using the vegan instead of the chicken stock. He knows she can’t wear her glasses when she cooks, so he swaps the boxes on the shelf at her eye level. One time it was our good fortune to be there on a day when Will was serving his mom’s killer super-rich vegan Puerto Rican vegetable-soup-with-a-kick. “You like my soup?” she asked. I don’t remember what she called it, but she smiled as we went on and on about how good it was. It was one of the most memorable soups either of us have ever had.
So many meals, so little time.
Polk Gulch Stroll [Map]
View Polk Gulch errands, art, and tea (Good Food in the Microhood) in a larger map
P.S. If reading about delicious food inspires you to help those needing basic nutritional support, please consider making a donation to the Polk Street’s own Project Open Hand, an organization who’s mission is to serve “meals with love” to neighbors in need every day.
Just steps from the downtown bustle at Powell and Market streets, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, within the Yerba Buena Gardens, is one of the most magical spots in downtown San Francisco.
One block south of Market Street, the gardens take up most of the area bounded by Mission and Howard, 4th and 3rd streets. Flanked by stairs on either side, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial anchors the south side of the gardens. (See Cindy Casey’s Untapped Cities article “Architecture Spotlight: Yerba Buena Gardens” for details about how the gardens came to be.) Jeff and I usually bring visitors here, and often have to point out the hidden path on either side of the reflecting pond. This path, in a very real sense, leads you into the fountain. The sound of the water makes it difficult to hear anything beyond your own thoughts; the dampness of the path requires that you walk slowly and carefully. The white noise of the fountain, along with the slow and steady pace required to walk, encourages taking the time to absorb the portions of Dr. King’s speeches printed on the plaques that line the back wall. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice and cadence seem inextricably linked to the text imprinted on the wall. Through the thundering water, I can almost hear the speeches as I read. Experiencing the fountain is always joyful and bittersweet for me, and I have yet to exit the fountain path without the mixture of sadness, hope, and tears.
Looking through the falls, across the gardens, to the Jewish Contemporary Museum and St. Patrick’s Church
Jeff records the falls and the wall of plaques with portions of Dr. King’s speeches.
There is another place to view this memorial though, and that’s from atop the fountain. Walk up the steps on either side of the reflecting pond (or to the long ramp on the left), and you’ll find yourself on a terrace above the gardens. A second sparkling reflecting pond sits on the memorial feeding the fountain. From the north (across the pond in front of you), are spectacular city views of the Contemporary Jewish Museum and its next door neighbor, 160-year-old St. Patrick’s Church across the plaza. On the right is the elegant San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (designed by Mario Botta). To the left, you see the reflections of the plaza in the mirrored walls of the Metreon. Behind you, facing south, are some perfect spots to sit, compose yourself, and continue to reflect, spiritually and physically, on the memorial and gardens below.
There are actually two restaurants up here on the Yerba Buena Gardens terrace, both with outdoor seating. Both are pleasant places to sit and eat, but Jeff and I are particularly fond of the Samovar Tea Lounge.
Samovar Tea Lounge (overlooking Yerba Buena Gardens and neighboring museums) with seating areas in the sun, under the wisteria arbor in the shade, and inside the glassed-in space
They call it a Tea Lounge, but we call it one of our favorite places to enjoy a gourmet health-food lunch. There are three dining areas, each with its distinct charm. The first, larger terrace overlooks the gardens, the church and SFMOMA. Long tables and a couple of couches adorn one of the sunniest spots in the city. A fabulous wisteria arbor (blooming bright purple in May) separates the large patio from the smaller shaded area where diners sit on couches or at a small outdoor counter with stools. The restaurant interior is constructed mostly of glass, cleanly designed in a style that may be described as modern zen. If weather permits, we love sitting on one of the terrace areas, but on a colder day (or a very hot one), the interior space is quite lovely as well.
The produce is 90% local or organic, and many of the delicious food items are priced quite reasonably. The updated menu includes labels that show which foods are also available in vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free, and the servers are always helpful in accommodating further requests. Although the teas (many of which are fair-trade and/or organic) are served with love and intricate brewing instruction, they can also be pricey. If you’re willing to share, one way to enjoy a tea more economically is to ask them to suggest teas that have many brews, and ask for extra cups.
Another great way to eat and sip economically is to order the tea soup. You’ll get a large bowl filled with brown rice, greens, seaweed, edamame, shiitake mushrooms, and a separate pot of bright green tea, chopsticks and a porcelain spoon. You then pour the tea into the bowl to “make” the soup. The mushrooms and greens all meld together into a delectable healthy meal. Pour more of the tea in the bowl as needed. It may sound strange, but it tastes fabulous. So I can also enjoy sipping some tea, I simply ask for an extra cup, splitting the tea between soup bowl and cup as tastes demand. You can order the tea soup with either organic tofu, or house-smoked wild salmon. Another favorite is the pricey but luscious vegan squash dumplings with divine (and practically drinkable) sesame dipping sauce* (YUM!). The Caesar salad is also delicious and can be served vegetarian (no wild salmon), gluten-free (no croutons), or vegan (no cheese or salmon). The custom-made whole-wheat ciabatta bread (and on which they serve the curried organic free-range egg salad) is really good. If money isn’t an issue, you can order one of the ethnic food and tea platters-we’ve never tasted anything that we didn’t think was good. If we’re feeling flush, Jeff is partial to the Chinese Service, which in addition to a stir fry includes three squash dumplings and a seemingly endless Pu-ehr tea for two.
The lovely gardens are on view everywhere, even in the window to Samovar’s interior dining area
When you’re thoroughly refreshed, before dashing off, take just a few minutes to stroll or sit at the edge of the terrace where the sea gulls dip in the water. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial within the Yerba Buena Gardens provides us the opportunity to pause, to remember, and refocus. On this day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in this city of extremes, in this nation of extremes, it’s important for me to keep sight of how blessed we are to have the luxury of such reflection.
*Decadent Samovar Sesame Sauce contains: cilantro, tamari, rice vinegar, tahini, Sriracha sauce, and garlic
NOTE: The Samovar Tea Lounge is actually what I call a “chainlet” -a local business with more than one location. While this Yerba Buena cafe has the most spectacular setting (and the only one that has the Chinese Service), the food is consistently good, and the atmosphere consistently hip-zen, in all three. The two neighborhood locations are Sanchez and 18th (in the Castro near Dolores Park), and Laguna and Page in Hayes Valley (which they call Zen Valley).
If reading about delicious food inspires you to help those needing basic nutritional support, please consider making a donation to Project Open Hand, an organization who’s mission is to serve “meals with love” to neighbors in need every day.
An evening of dinner and the theater in San Francisco doesn’t have to break the bank. Most of the time we can find a delicious meal for less than $20 (for both of us), followed by an evening of theater, with tickets often purchased at already low or discounted prices.*
In San Francisco, in addition to street theater and performance art that can appear just about any time any where, there are numerous formal theater venues scattered throughout the city, from The Marsh in the Mission to the Magic Theatre within Fort Mason at the Marina. One area of the city with a cluster of theaters is just west of Union Square, in the Tenderloin district.
A hidden gem of a café sits demurely across across from Best Buy, on Harrison near 14th Street.
Over the years Jeff and I have learned that the best way to reduce impulse purchases at the grocery store is to never shop on an empty stomach. But because it’s not always possible to eat before shopping, it’s paramount to identify those perfect places to grab a bite nearby. When we moved to San Francisco in 2006 we had to start from scratch, setting up all of the basic essentials needed for life in a new place. This list of resources included important things, like figuring out where we’d live, whom we’d see for medical checkups, where we would get our health-food groceries, and (near the top of the list) where we could grab that emergency, healthy bite before shopping for food. Through advance research I’d found that there were then three Whole Foods Markets in San Francisco. But there was no way that I could have imagined a place like the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative.
San Franciscan old-timers are often jaded about Rainbow, complaining about the prices or how long it takes to shop there, but to these east coast transplants, it’s just simply amazing. I’ve belonged to a number of co-ops and CSAs, and have entered almost every health food store that I’ve ever passed, but I’ve never seen a store as vast and varied-and stocked to the rafters with countless varieties of lovely organic produce-as Rainbow. Ah the produce! The first time our friend Gary brought us there I actually fought back tears. It was more than just the amazing selection of organic fruits and veggies, the stunning scale of the store, or the huge range of herbs and teas. What overwhelmed me most was that Rainbow represents a city that is quirky-foodie-healthy enough to demand and sustain aisles of bulk food stocked with items like wheat-free organic tamari, teechino and umeboshi plum paste.
Rainbow Grocery Coop produce isle has an astounding selection of gorgeous, fresh, (often local) organic fruits and veggies (FYI: the “Cooperative” means that Rainbow is cooperatively owned by its workers-it’s not a food co-op that offers discount to volunteers in exchange for work).
Like many of us in the south quadrant of the city, I now get most of my organic (or local spray–free) produce from the Saturday Alemany Farmers Market. However this doesn’t negate the necessity for regular pilgrimages to Rainbow for specialty produce, restocking bulk foods, teas, TP and sundries, and maybe even a treat or two.
Those treats do really add up though, and the hungrier we are, the more treats seem to make it into the cart. Unfortunately, one thing Rainbow doesn’t have is a salad bar/hot table (like Whole Foods does), so we still needed to find a place to eat before shopping. The microhood that runs along 14th street between Rainbow on Folsom Street and the Best Buy on Harrison Street had a few stores, two evening “fine dining” restaurants and, recently, the diner-like Cafe Zazo. But given my no-dairy, no-meat, non-deep fry restrictions, none of these options fulfilled my quest for a nearby, healthy-ish bite. Then, just as I’d about given up the search, the perfect spot magically materialized.
Last November, without any fanfare (or even signage), a little cafe then-called Star Stream opened its doors at 1830 Harrison. The now-renamed Goody Goodie Cream & Sugar Cafe and Dessert Salon (referred to in this article as “Goody Goodie Cafe”) has a somewhat better visibility (signage), expanded days of operation (currently from 7:30am to 5pm Monday through Friday, and Saturdays from 9am to 2pm), and continues to turn out what might be my favorite pizza-anywhere.
I’m originally from NYC where pizzas literally bend from the weight of the cheese. Unfortunately I can no longer eat cheese, so NYC street pizzas are out. In the 24 years before we moved to San Francisco, Jeff and I lived near New Haven, CT-which swears to have invented the pizza. New Haven is famous for its fabulous white clam pizzas (no cheese or sauce, just olive oil and fresh clams charred in a brick oven), and I was a little worried that moving west would mean that I would have to live without great pizza.
Thankfully, decades ago Berkeley chef Alice Waters reinvigorated the concept of pizzas with thinner crusts topped with fresh arugula and other goodies. Chef Remi descends from this lineage, having been hired straight out of culinary school by star chefs Jeremy Tower (whose first culinary job in 1972 was at Chez Panisse) and Emily Luchetti to work at the then-famous SF restaurant Stars.
At Goody Goodie Cafe, Chef Remi has created a pizza with perhaps the lightest, most heavenly crust I’ve ever tasted. It is almost paper thin and baked to perfection. I’ve gotten the “verde” pizza a number of times and have never been disappointed. The verde consists of thinly sliced roasted potatoes, pesto, pine nuts, a farm egg in the middle-all topped with arugula and a few shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. If you’re vegan, ask them to make it without the cheese and egg (the pesto is vegan). Don’t eat gluten? Then opt for the exquisite house salad, piled high with arugula, roasted potatoes, pickled carrots, and topped with a memorable tart-yet-slightly-sweet dressing. Depending on our hunger level Jeff and I will share one of the above or order both. They also make a wonderful whole grain bread, so I keep wanting to try the fresh farm egg salad sandwich with a side salad, but I never seem to be willing to forgo the pizza or the house salad. Since I can’t eat dairy and don’t drink coffee, we’ve not ordered the famous (and apparently loved) waffles served with a shot of Blue Bottle Coffee espresso. In addition to Blue Bottle (regular and decaf), they also have a lovely selection off 5 Mountains Heirloom Organic Teas. The food is fresh and local, with prices ranging from about $3.50 (for waffle or side salad) to $12 for a loaded pizza.
As we’ve both settled in to life in San Francisco, it’s become clear that the famous high-end restaurants are not what make this such an exciting city for food. The amazing thing about San Francisco food is these small, unpretentious places like Goody Goodie Cafe, where locals can get the best in reasonably priced and simply prepared, good food. But even more important than forming the basis of the eating scene in San Francisco, these small neighborhood restaurants help to establish and define this city’s vibrant microhoods.
Although Goody Goodie Cafe has solved the “don’t shop on an empty stomach” problem, it’s created an entirely new dilemma. Now scheduling our trips to Rainbow hinges on whether we have enough time to first stop at Goody Goodie Cafe for lunch.
So many meals, so little time”¦
P.S. If reading about delicious food inspires you to help low-income food entrepreneurs become economically self-sufficient, please consider making a donation to the Mission non-profit La Cocina. La Cocina focuses primarily on helping women from communities of color and immigrant communities do what they love to do, while contributing to a vibrant economy.
As much as we still love Goody Goodie, something new in the neighborhood required checking out-and it’s not just one place, it’s a whole cluster of new places-or rather, a cluster of food trucks.
Since I don’t eat meat, dairy, or deep fry, generally food trucks aren’t usually a draw for me. Add to that the lines for food, derth of comfy places to sit, and lack of nearby clean bathrooms-and “street food” is normally an experience I pass up. Until now.
Just across Division Street and a bit east from Rainbow, there is a new space where foodies have begun to congregate. We’ve been watching the construction and the signs going up. Then we recently found ourselves heading to Rainbow on a day too windy to sit outside at GoodyGoodie, so we decided to just walk over the check out the new SOMA StrEAT Food Park. (In case you’re as mystified about the name as I was: HINT->see the EAT in the Str EAT?)
Right off the bat we were concerned that the location (just under the highways and next to the speeding Division traffic) was going to be too noisy and hectic. However, the designers did a really good job making this area feel a world away from the hustle and bustle nearby. With lots of tables and different seating areas (many sheltered from the wind), it became immediately clear that this is not your average street food.
In fact, it turns out that, being San Francisco, we found plenty of healthy eats.
The dairy-free polenta at the Raavling truck spoke to me. What I got was a wonderful, fresh, vegan polenta baked with tomato sauce, olive oil, and served with a small spinach salad for (I’m not kidding) $4.00 at Raavling (thurs, sat, sun). Jeff got one of the Sunrise Deli’s “Best Bay Area Falafel” wraps, and it was good.
Oh lest I forget: they even have a building with clean bathrooms
Next time perhaps I’ll get to the fresh whole wheat pasta (they’re adding gluten-free soon)-but there’s also the other vendors serving organic Vietnamese , or EireTrea for Irish/Eritrean veggies (really). And of course the trucks change regularly, resulting in different combinations of foods at all times. We’ll just never get to try everything that looks good, especially because there still is Goody Goodie.
So many meals, so little time.
P.S. FYI Goody Goodie now only serves pizza Wednesday through Saturday
Workaday commerce, graffiti, and Muni stops conspire to hide restaurants in plain sight (18th and Mission)
(see an article on how Sharon Steuer created an earlier version of this image on creativepro.com)
My husband Jeff and I spend an inordinate portion of our time eating or planning for our next meal. Jeff’s earliest food memories are eating clams and oysters on the half-shell, straight from the south shore of Long Island. My earliest food memories take me to small neighborhood restaurants of downtown manhattan: spaghetti at the local red-checkered table-clothed restaurants, and snails in black bean sauce in neighboring Chinatown. (At that time our neighborhood in was a micro-hood of Little Italy; it’s now in the heart of SoHo.) When my parents split, I was moved to the suburbs, and by the time I was a teenager my life had evolved into a car-bound pattern of junk foods and ill health. Thankfully, the hippie college I went to was nestled in the verdant hills of Amherst, Massachusetts, my college education included exposure to natural foods, farm-grown produce, food co-ops and the “you are what you eat” approach to health. Note: As a teenager Jeff also got relocated to the same car-bound suburb (where our mothers were friends and introduced us to each other years later); he went on to his own hippie school.
Over the years I’ve continually revised what I do and don’t eat, and I’ve finally carved out a lifestyle and diet that provide me with sensually satisfying, yummy foods that support good health. In addition to daily yoga (and since moving to San Francisco, constantly walking up and down hills), I’ve settled into a mostly local and organic Mediterranean-style diet, consisting primarily of veggies, fruits, whole grains and good oils (olive and flax), with an occasional organic egg or local small fish; but no butter, dairy, poultry or meat. Jeff mostly eats what I eat at home (he’s the more dedicated cook), and although he’s pretty much an omnivore when we’re out, he staunchly supports our choosing restaurants where I can eat well. What this meant living back east was that we ate fairly well at home (the local and fresh part is hard in the cold months!), but in terms of going out, even though we were often perceived of as being very picky, we often ended up spending too much money for plain or mediocre food that left me feeling deprived (“Well there’s butter in everything, so shall we just take the sauces off for you?” ).
Needless to say, once we landed in San Francisco, the “over-spending for meals of deprivation” came to an abrupt end. Finding good, local, healthy food is now something I take for granted, and as a result, a large portion of my daily life now focuses on making up for lost time: what we’ll do for the next meal, what’s come in this week at the farmers’ market, which new places we’ve read about lately, or whether we have the money or energy to squeeze in one more meal out. The most dangerous question always is “is that a new restaurant on the corner?”
When in the fall of 2007 I moved my art studio into the Workspace Limited building on Folsom between 17th and 18th streets, I needed to find a few inexpensive but decent restaurants where I could grab a quick bite on the way to or from work. Whenever I would get off the 14L bus at the corner of 18th and Mission (it now stops at 20th), I would look for food options. There was a ton of construction going on at that corner, and at first glance, amongst the boarded up stores and bodegas I didn’t find many promising places to try. But, as anyone spending time in the Mission knows, first glances are deceiving.
While tourists migrate to quainter neighborhoods like Castro, bargain-hunting foodies flock to Mission and 18th
Although after a month or so I’d found a couple of spots in the neighborhood, I was surprised to read in a “Cheap Eats” review about a restaurant that was supposedly at that very bleak corner of Mission and 18th. I must have looked for it for a week or so before I found a graffiti-laden sign, just a few doors up from the Smoke Shop at the northwest corner of the intersection. Without the review I might never have noticed that the apparent line for the 33 bus was really the line snaking out Yamo’s front door.
Yamo is truly one of the gems of the Mission, and I’m more than a little worried that posting it here will make it impossible for me ever to get in again-so please-just enjoy this yourself, and don’t tell too many people. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Yamo is “locally sourced” or makes any attempt at organic, but the counters are filled with fresh veggies and fruits, and everything is made to order. Peek in through the door and you’ll see a long counter bisecting the restaurant: on one side are a line of stools, and on the other is a long, narrow kitchen area with three Burmese women cooking their butts off. If you are lucky to spy a stool or two open, you’ll need to squeeze in between the seated folks shoveling food into their mouths and the long wall with hooks. Don’t take someone here who is concerned with health ratings-I’ve never seen the posted card, or wanted to; I just pretend I’m traveling the world and the locals sent me here. In cold weather I love the fish chowder noodle soup, and in hotter weather the tea salad, mango salad or the “spring rolls” with soft tofu-you’ll get a pair of rice-paper-wrapped “fresh rolls” with peanut sauce). Jeff particularly likes the veggie samusas, black bean fish (they’re both deep fried so I don’t get those) and the chicken noodle soup. There are plenty of veggie things there-but do ask them not to use fish sauce if you want to be certain. We’ve never gotten the fresh coconuts (top hacked off while you wait and then straw inserted)-but they look good. It can be oppressively hot in the summer, but take-out for a picnic is great. Again, please please don’t spread the word about Yamo-they’re busy enough. Recently the prices have gone up about $.75 a dish, so the appetizers are now topping out at $4.25; soups, salads, and main courses are now $6. If you order more than one dish per person, you’ll likely be bringing food home. (Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Sundays. Don’t go with more than two people-you’d never get in and would be hard-pressed to hear each other.)
Peeking in at Yamo
Most of the construction on the corner of 18th and Mission is finally now completed, and a few new food spots have inserted themselves so well into the cityscape that you might easily look right at them without seeing what you’re looking at. Two such restaurants are just past the decent (but not great) Asian supermarket on the corner, just across the street from Yamo. If you walk south down Mission Street past the parking lot of the Asian market, you’ll get to one of the new, super cool restaurants in the Mission. With windows of frosted glass on the street side, the main entrance for Commonwealth faces the parking lot. They’re not open for lunch, so we tried it one early evening when we scooted out during an event at Workspace in search of a quick bite. Commonwealth was started by two of the food people who put Bar Tartine on the map. So far we’ve only had appetizers and dessert-but they were very nice indeed. We sat at the chef’s bar (my favorite thing to do these days) and watched the kitchen turn out some lovingly prepared dishes. We chose a couple of appetizers. They were small plates, and though much more expensive than Yamo, actually pretty reasonable for the level of presentation and taste. We had no intention of having dessert (I don’t eat dairy or butter, so if I’m not in the mood for sorbet, I rarely get dessert), but our intentions changed as we watched a vegan meringue swirl out of a N2O canister (commonly used for whipped cream) and delivered directly into a dry ice container for instant freezing. The swirl was served with a berry coulis-oh seriously, this is a dessert burned into my consciousness for all time. I’ve been warned that dinner can add up quickly, so unless you’re feeling particularly flush, it’s probably safest to go first with the intention of just trying a couple of things. (Dinner, closed Mondays.)
Looking down Mission, past the Asian market towards Commonwealth and Lung Shan/Mission Chinese
On days I can’t get into Yamo for lunch, or if I have more than two companions, there are now a couple of other terrific options. Two doors further south from Commonwealth, another former cohort from Bar Tartine’s first famous team hosts a very special secret place in the Mission. Mission Chinese is actually a restaurant within a restaurant. In true SF Chef style, Danny Bowien has recently opened his Mission Chinese restaurant within an easy-to-walk-past, bright yellow marquis for Lung Shan Chinese food. Inside you’ll find a changing menu of locally sourced, complex and lovely innovative Cal-Chinese food. Sometimes many of the otherwise meaty dishes are available as vegan-including (strangely enough) the “Thrice Cooked Bacon” dish (made meatless with tofu skin). The Vegan Delight miso soup with homemade dumplings were really lovely (though not on the current menu). The homemade Fresh Tofu, Tiger Salad, and the soba noodle salad with tofu skin were also delicious. On my last visit Danny caught me snapping a few pictures and proudly asked me if I wanted to peek at the the new menu. I followed Danny into the kitchen where the not yet finalized menu was taped to the refrigerator-he ran-down the items with me, telling me how this dish was a new twist on that, and also talking about how important it was that every food palette could be accommodated, and pointing out that more than half of the 26 items were, or could be made either vegan, or fish without meat. When I’ve gone with meat eaters they report that all is really good, though sometimes on the fatty/oily side. Much of the food is seriously hot (ask one of the young waitstaff to help if you want help navigating anything on the menu), with our favorite comment probably being the young waitress who told Jeff that the lion’s head meatballs were “fucking awesome!” The prices tend to range from $7–$16 with generous portions, so if you under order you’ll do great and stay on a fairly tight budget. Although I was initially surprised that they don’t serve brown rice, the food served here is not the kind of food that requires a bed of rice. Dinner can get crowded if you don’t arrive early; however, unlike Yamo, at lunch it’s generally not difficult to get a table. Mission Chinese does take-out, and they deliver to much of the city for a small fee (free in the immediate hood). (Closed Wednesdays. No reservations or parties larger than eight people.)
Lung Shan storefront
Only a Mission Chinese menu and Zagat reviews modestly hint of the ambitious food within
But wait. There’s more …
On this same corner, in addition to Burmese, innovative Cal-Chinese and California “modern cuisine,” there is also great healthy organic Mexican food. Directly across Mission Street from Commonwealth is Gracias Madre. It isn’t cheap, but it’s all organic, all vegan. The cashew cheeses and almond milks are fabulous, and Jeff thinks they make the best mexican hot chocolate anywhere. I’m particularly addicted to the Gorditas ($7), which are everything I want in comfort food- warm, delicious, healthy, creamy, crunchy, rich, organic, vegan, wheat-free. Think of a cross between a latke (potato pancake) and polenta (creamy corn meal) with some lettuce, avocado, cashew cream, cilantro and salsa. I’ve sat at the counter and had it for dinner, and found myself humming along with every bite. The gordita is also plenty of food to share with someone else if you add a side dish ($2 to $6), or are especially hungry. In lieu of a side, try adding the large vegan Ensalada de Caesar ($8). Gracias Madre also offers a lunch special each day at $10 that’s usually quite good. Also fabulous but more expensive are the Enchiladas con Mole ($14) and the warm (made-to-order) fruit cobbler (the fruit changes seasonally; $8). If the weather is remotely nice, I prefer to sit outside in their heated entrance patio-it’s quieter (it can get really loud inside) and it offers great Mission Street people watching. Gracias Madre isn’t nearly as cheap as some of the other places on the block, but you’ll be served lovingly prepared, local, gourmet organic, Mexican food.
The patio mural at Gracias Madre
People watching from the patio at Gracias Madre
Walking north on Mission towards 18th: 1) Lung Shan/Mission Chinese; 2) Commonwealth; 3) Yamo (around the corner on 18th); 4) Gracias Madre
For now, that’s the abbreviated rundown on this particular corner of the Mission. There are more places of course, hidden here and there. At the Northeast corner Weird Fish has just re-opened after a long mysterious revamping (they kind of started the “new Mission” style eatery cluster at this corner just before I moved here), and I keep looking in on their sister bar/restaurant The Corner, which is hosting revolving pop-up restaurants (look for the red lantern to announce that it’s serving ramen).
The sign above Weird Fish (NE corner of Mission and 18th)
When you see the red lantern hanging at The Corner, they’re serving ramen
So many meals, so little time …
P.S. If reading about delicious food inspires you to help those needing basic nutritional support, please consider making a donation to Project Open Hand, an organization who’s mission is to serve “meals with love” to neighbors in need every day.
One thing is for certain, the San Francisco food scene is in a constant state of flux and evolution, and the restaurants clustered around the corner of Mission and 18th are no exception.
Mission Chinese is still in the same location, and it’s still very good. The word is now fully out though, which means the lines are longer. The yellow Lung Shan sign still marks the spot, but you’ll no longer see the old time Lung Shan regulars, and you won’t be offered the Lung Shan menu to consider. Danny is now quite well known, and by that I don’t mean just within San Francisco. Besides the lovely coffee-table book profiling Mission Chinese, the bigger news is that New Yorkers can now enjoy Mission Chinese without getting on a plane, or FedExing take out.
Other updates since the first posting? The bar called Corner, no longer hosts pop-up restaurants, which means that you won’t see the red lantern signaling ramen lunches. Instead, Ken Ken Ramen found a permanent home just a few doors east on 18th (towards South Van Ness). It looks unassuming from the outside, but a few nights a week you’ll see a line of hipsters waiting in a queue. If you get there early enough (or wait long enough) to get a seat, you’ll discover a hopping room filled with diners enjoying steaming hot bowls of ramen.
Lastly, while the raw food landmark Cafe Gratitude has indeed closed its Mission location, I am happy to report that Gratitude’s younger sibling, Gracias Madres, has survived, and is still cooking great organic vegan fare.
And that’s just this one corner. For now. Because I won’t even begin to tell you about the slew of spots recently opened up just two two blocks away on Valencia”¦
So many meals, so little time”¦