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”¦