A woman in New York once confessed to me that on a recent trip to San Francisco, so many people told her she had to eat at La Taqueria in the Mission District that she eventually wandered down Mission St. looking for this legendary taco spot. “But every place there was called ‘La Taqueria,’” she said, still bewildered, “So I just went into one and ate.”
I had to confess I laughed at her stupidity. But I could sympathize as well. The Mission is crammed with taquerias and if you’re not accustomed to accosting a stranger to ask, then you wind up in the wrong place-though I’m sure wherever she ended up she ate well. After all, she was from New York, where similar hole-in the-wall taquerias, run by Mexicans, patronized by Mexicans, with a menu completely in Spanish, are the ugly, mustached, far-less tasty stepbrother of the California equivalent. I too live in New York and so when I spent five days in the Mission District this week, I felt obligated by my taste buds to make a pilgrimage to the taqueria. Or, rather, several of them.
But instead of just revisiting the my old haunts when I lived here-La Taqueria, El Farolito, Taqueria Cancun-I wanted to try different places. I’ve recently seen a few travel stories where the writer relies on social media like twitter to determine the itinerary. The idea was good, but at the same time (steel yourself twitter fanatics), I’m starting to wonder if social media’s use as a travel tool is overblown, amplified by the travel industry because of its newness.
So I would go on a quest for tacos the old school way: by asking people face to face-yes, turning off my phone and actually talking to a stranger-to determine where I should eat next. I started in front of La Taqueria at Mission and 25th Sts. and accosted a hooded gentleman whose thick mustache suggested he knew a thing or two about tacos. “Right here,” he said, pointing to La Taqueria. When I explained that I wanted to go somewhere different, he said, ah, and pointed down the street to La Corneta.
La Corneta (2731 Misson St. at 23rd St.) is a grand, spacious place with the obligatory 20-foot painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the wall. Even though I was about to consume a cart full of tacos, La Corneta’s chaffing dishes soaking with red and orange-hued meats and sauces were too good to pass up. So I ordered three: pollo con salsa roja, al pastor (barbequed pork) and chorizo (Mexican sausage). The ingredients here were a step above, fresher tasting and bolder. And with just one encounter so far, I had a new place to eat tacos the next time I’m in town (or to recommend to someone on twitter!).
When I stepped outside, the rarified San Francisco sun splashing me in the face, I was the one who was accosted. A woman was handing me a pamphlet in Spanish. One that subscribed to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. “I’m only a believer in Santo Taco,” I told her. She tilted her head and I explained. “Oh,” she said, “Then you must go to Taqueria San Jose.”
And, as my mission states, I did go to Taqueria San Jose (2830 Mission St. at 24th St.). When I noticed one wall boasted a huge painting of a woman (or is that a man?) happily shaving off meat from a kabob-like haunch of pork, I knew I was in the right place. I ordered one taco-al pastor-and when it arrived, I just felt like staring at it for a while. Two corn tortillas with a mountain of shredded barbeque pork on top and a glistening layer of red salsa on the very top. I dug in and was rewarded with ultra tender meat that was heavily charred on the outside. I wanted another, but I had to move on.
My next victim was a woman selling avocados one block down the street. She didn’t speak English, but a man with a big belly came over to help out. They both agreed that I should go to La Altena (2588 Mission St. at 22nd St.). “What should I get there?” I asked.
The man swayed his head back and forth, the nickel-sized medallion hanging from a gold chain around his neck glimmering from the sun, and said: “Vaca … puerco …. pollo…” He’d ticked off a list that made up the canon of meats. And despite his advice, I ordered a fish taco at La Altena. Nevermind the guy at the register didn’t know what kind of fish it was. Lightly breaded and very flaky, the fish was bland, aided by the contrasting texture of fresh, stiff cabbage on top and some tangy green salsa. It was the one miss on my journey so far, but then again, I shouldn’t have deviated from the advice I’d received on the street. I should have stuck to animals that had legs, not fins.
Five tacos in, I was getting full. But I had to carry on. So I asked a twenty-something guy selling ice cream. “Taqueria San Francisco,” he said with such enthusiasm his breath was shooting exclamation marks. He pointed down 24th Street and then shook my hand. This was something that would never happen on twitter. I commenced my journey. I don’t know why, but I’d never been down this way, which is a shame, because the blocks of 24th St. south of Mission St. (SoMi?), were an intriguing yet incongruous mixture of Salvadoran and Mexican restaurants, shops that sold Virgin Mary candles, hipster coffee houses, and restaurants that served brunch. I was so enjoying it, in fact, that I was almost disappointed when I happened upon Taqueria San Francisco (2794 24th St. at York St.).
I was especially disappointed when the interior had a certain stench to it, one that smelled like a bathroom; not necessarily a dirty bathroom, but a commode nonetheless. No one wants to be reminded of such tings in the place you’re about to consume food. But I’m glad I ordered: the al pastor taco was the best yet: unlike the charred pork meat at Taqueria San Jose, the meat here was soft, a little bit chewy and interspersed with cilantro, diced tomatoes and fresh onions.
With my stomach full, my anti-twitter taco crawl would come to a close. Who knows, maybe my twitter friends could have recommended even better places. The fact is though: just as my friend in New York discovered when she was looking for La Taqueria, a visitor to San Francisco can visit in any taqueria in the Mission District and be satisfied.
David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.