Mission Accomplished

San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood is home to some of America’s best restaurants. Here we take a tour of, and get a taste for, the Mission District.

People migrate to San Francisco’s Mission District for all sorts of virtuous reasons: to work in local non-profits, paint inspiring murals on the sides of buildings or seed life-changing start-ups from scratch. The majority, however, come to the Mission, on the edge of downtown, for one thing only. “We’re here to eat,” says Avital Ungar, who’s been running food tours of the city for five years.

Over the past two decades, San Francisco’s oldest suburb - which was once known for its poverty and crime - has evolved from a scrappy bohemian enclave to become an incubator for some of America’s best restaurants, bakeries and produce.

In a single day, visitors can gorge themselves on award-winning cheeses paired with plum-apricot hybrids (pluots) from local markets, wash down a vegan banquet with locally brewed lagers and finish it all off with a dessert good enough to queue up for: pillow-soft salted caramel ice-cream, served in feathery, crisp wafer cones. Needless to say, it’s important that anyone visiting the Mission comes with an open mind and an empty stomach.

We meet Ungar on the corner of 18th and Lapidge Streets, the site of the city’s historic Women’s Building. Established in 1979, the four-storey construction was the first community centre in the US to be owned and run by women. The mural on its exterior - MaestraPeace, painted by seven female artists in 1994 - depicts pioneering women and glass ceiling-breakers from around the world and is arguably San Francisco’s most beloved outdoor painting. Ungar always starts her culinary guide to the Mission here, explaining that, while her tours are all about food, to understand the suburb’s culinary world, you also need to understand its history, community and people. “What we’re doing is telling the story of the people behind the food,” she says.

The Mission’s gourmet transformation can be traced back to 1995, when the Vietnamese-American restaurateur and chef Charles Phan opened his first restaurant, Slanted Door, two blocks away from the Women’s Building. America had never tasted Vietnamese food so good. It became so famous that it quickly turned into the highest grossing restaurant in California. Since then, Slanted Door - which has now relocated - has won Phan multiple James Beard Foundation awards, considered the Oscars of the US culinary scene.

Two years later, in 1997, the Mission’s Bi-Rite Market - established in 1940 - was acquired by two brothers who spun it into a one-stop produce store, geared towards chefs and restaurants. “They put a kitchen right in the middle of this grocery store and basically turned it into an indoor farmer’s market,” Ungar says.
Nowadays, Bi-Rite has such a direct relationship with its suppliers, the staff can tell you not only what kind of apple you’re buying, but the orchard on which it grew and the family that farmed it. From those modest snowflakes in the Mission came an avalanche of new business. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, the area saw a steady procession of patisseries, chocolate makers, restaurants and cafes opening their doors. Trade roared, food awards showered down like confetti, and eateries started to pop up everywhere (in just 18 months from 2011 to 2012, 16 new restaurants opened on Valencia Street alone).

At one point, Danny Bowien was one of the area’s most celebrated chefs, working the pans at the achingly cool Mission Chinese Food. When the eatery expanded to the Big Apple in 2012, New York Times food critic Pete Wells gave it two stars (out of a possible four) and said of him, “[He] does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues... He grabs hold of tradition and runs at it with abandon, hitting the accents hard, going heavy on the funk and causing all kinds of delicious havoc.”
The Mission’s restaurateurs continue to push boundaries and it’s here you’ll find unusual concepts in food, such as Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre, which has become so popular it now has a second branch in West Hollywood.

Gracias Madre is a vegan restaurant, a concept the owners arrived at after travelling to Mexico with colleagues to meet their family. “The intention was to create that homey, comfortable feeling they experienced and bring it into the Mission,” says general manager Ken McCown, and to make “Mexican food that didn’t involve cheap meat and a tonne of dairy product. This is a clean, healthy revitalisation of Mexican cuisine.”
The ‘clean’ theme continues to the triple-filtered water that pumps into the restaurant - and is used for everything from table water to rinsing vegetables — and to the decor, with the industrial-scale kitchen restaurant surrounded by glass so diners can see how everything is made (including the tortillas that are hand-made on the day they’re eaten). “It’s a tough way to run a restaurant,” McCown says, “but we feel really proud of that.”

A short hop from Gracias Madre is Craftsman and Wolves, an ‘avant-garde patisserie’ where ‘carbohydrate sculptors’ work their magic. When head chef William Werner turns his attention to even the most modest of bakery items - croissant, sandwich or row of cakes - he puts a twist on it. Take his ‘Rebel Within’, for example. From outside it looks like an ordinary breakfast muffin, but dig in and you’ll find a soft-boiled egg at its centre. Craftsman and Wolves’ manager Brynne Ziontz explains the Rebels are specially made in a CombiMaster oven, which can both steam and bake at super-low heat. “What keeps [the egg] from overcooking is a flash freezer, which the muffin goes into as soon as it comes out of the oven, stopping the cooking process.”

Each Rebel Within is served with a vial of pink Tabasco salt and, even though it is technically a breakfast food, Ziontz suggests washing it down with a glass of crisp, chilled Californian white wine.

About 90 per cent of American wines are made in California - and are enjoyed the world over - but at Mission Cheese it’s all about American craft beer, paired with American-made cheeses. “A decade ago, the US cheese industry started to wake up,” says Mission Cheese manager Eric Miller. “About a dozen creameries started to revolutionise the cheese industry in the US and we saw a move away from that orange block of cheddar.”
Pre-war cheesemaking methods have since been embraced across the country and at Mission Cheese you can sample more than 375 varieties of cow, sheep and goat curds (with all-American names such as East of Edam) sourced from 120 different American creameries.

While Miller encourages visitors to pair the cheese with beer - “Nibble the cheese first, then make a paste with the beer and cheese in your mouth,” he suggests - you can also buy it by the pound to take away or sit down for a meal from the limited menu. Dishes range from mac and cheese to grilled cheese sandwiches (of course).
Enfant terrible chef Anthony Bourdain said it best when he said, “Anyone who doesn’t have a great time in San Francisco is pretty much dead to me.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Words by Benjamin Law - Published in Voyeur Published in Voyeur December 2015
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 7.0033 million
Time Zone UTC -5
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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