How Many Bites Does It Take To Get To The Center Of The Mission? – Ashley Hagin

Posted on January 30, 2012


Spaces seem exponentially smaller than they are when you’re traveling with 25 other people.
We stuffed ourselves into the back of La Victoria, a small bakery boasting 60 years in the business, one of the oldest in the city. I glanced around at the deep red walls between which papel picado is strung, the aqua wrapping paper patterned with oranges adorning the ceiling, Jackson Pollock-style paintings by Sean Levon Nash hanging above the tiny tables.

The place smelled like freshly-baked pastries, the warmth of that delicate mixture of sugar and butter enveloping every inch of your existence. I silently mapped out our trek from BART to La Victoria, eager to return before we’ve even tasted anything.
Suddenly, a metal tray appeared covered in sweet pastries: conchas, elotes, citadelas and macarons.

While we sipped coffee, our tour guide Serena cut the pastries into bite-sized pieces while Luis Villavelazquez, one of the pastry chefs, explained the flavors of each. He told us about the political background of the citadelas, how they were crafted in order to mock colonial architecture during the colonial and post-colonial periods — how when you take a bite out of your breakfast treat, you’re symbolically taking a bite out of colonial culture. I laughed, imagining colonial architects shaking their fists at us as we enjoyed ourselves in this cafe.

All these treats were decadent, the sugar practically melting in your mouth, complementing the dark bitterness of the coffee. My favorite, though, was the macaron. It was heavy and thick, a toasty coconut flavor seeping out of its sticky, chewy body.
It was hard to pull myself away from this precious little gem of a panaderia. Little did I know what lay ahead.
With our group now half its original size, we moved on to a little closet-sized restaurant directly across from the BART at Mission and 24th. Mr. Pollo is the smallest space I’ve ever been in, but the culinary creations there are larger than life.
We met Ivan, one of the chefs, who prepared a meal on the spot, with a special accommodation for those of us who didn’t eat meat.

The coconut de leche polenta was mildly sweet, just enough to complement but not compete with the stronger sweetness of the fried plantains, which were perfectly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The arugula provided a clean tartness to contrast the other flavors. The cheese was practically undetectable.

At first bite, I decided that this was the best small-bite meal I’ve ever had. Later, I’d decide that this wasn’t true – everything we ate on this trip had exceptional flavor. Still, I scraped that plate clean.

Our next stop was Mission Minis, a gourmet cupcake cafe. True to its name, Mission Minis not only sold delectable miniature cupcakes but was also contained in a miniature space. Once again, we found our “small” group of 15 crammed inside a space meant to accommodate maybe 5 at most.

After much deliberation over what flavor cupcakes we’d want (cinnamon horchata, lemon, red velvet, classic vanilla, pumpkin spice, swiss almond coconut), I finally went with the lemon. I’ve been on a lemon craze for the last year and its become, in my book, a standard by which all cupcake shops are judged.

The frosting was light and creamy, with just a hint of lemon flavor, respecting the deeper lemon flavor of the moist cake. On top of the delicate flavor, its size was precious and just right. A+ in my book, Mission Minis.

Our sugar craze continued as we walked along, arriving at Humphry Slocombe on Harrison and 24th. The interior was clean and fresh, and the staff friendly.

There was an array of interesting flavors, including anise, but I played it safe with chocolate smoked sea salt.

It didn’t taste smoky in any way, but it had a classic chocolate ice cream flavor infused with an abundance of salt that made me immediately thirsty. It was rich in a good way, but the portion size was way too big. It could have been half or even a quarter of what was considered a small and still been beyond satisfactory.

Our stay at Humphry Slocombe was fleeting, and we enjoyed our ice cream while walking over to La Palma Mexicatessen, where we were awarded with vegetarian huaraches. These sandal-shaped, black bean-stuffed, tortilla-like creations are topped with shredded cabbage, onions, cheese, cilantro and tomato sauce.

I haven’t stopped thinking about this food that I’d never tried before — I think I even dreamed about it. The huarache had a sneaky kick to it, leaving my lips tingling long after I’d devoured my portion. The heat and the spice warmed every inch of my being as the air around me began to chill with the first rainfall.

And just when I thought we were finished with our food tour, we trekked on further to El Farolito for the tacos we’d been expecting all day. My vegetarian version landed in front of me in a red basket reminiscent of retro American diners, its sauce saturating the paper liner, almost spilling out of the basket.

At first glance, it just looked like a pile of yellow rice with avocado and cilantro. It wasn’t until I spotted a piece of crispy, burnt cheese sticking out that I realized a tortilla was hiding underneath, transforming this pile of food into an overstuffed soft taco. I figured the best way to go about eating it was to start from the top with a fork until I could fold the tortilla in half. It was then that I discovered a succulent blanket of melted Monterey Jack cheese, revealing itself in long strings as I tried to scoop up bites of rice. Out of all the tacos I’ve had, this one takes the cake for best ever.

Scattered in between all the eats, we learned about the culture and history of the Mission District of San Francisco. We admired murals, some of which are painted on people’s houses (artwork commissioned or allowed by the owner, but owned by the artist). We found out that the Mission District was one of the areas least affected by the earthquake of ’89. Serena told us about how punk music exploded in the District.

The appeal of the Mission is, for me, directly related to the knowledge and sociability of the person that takes you there. Serena’s friendly, relaxed demeanor and exceptional knowledge about the subtleties of the area made the trip hugely enjoyable. I’ve been to the Mission several times before, but it never had the same effect on me. I’d never been compelled to revisit, but my mind has been effectively changed. The Mission is full of secret little places that are full of tasty surprises.
My only concern is that I can’t go back soon enough.

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