I grew up less than 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco, and for as long as I can remember, the city's Mission District has been considered ground zero for great Mexican food in Northern California. Over the last twenty years, the neighborhood has also become one of the Bay Area's most sought after places to live, and as a result, the epicenter of its new restaurant scene.
Now you can eat braised short ribs and nicoise salad at Luna Park, then cross the street for a beef burrito at Taqueria El Buen Sabor. Or start with cabeza tacos at Taqueria Vallarta, then round the corner for foie gras ice cream at Humphry Slocombe. Where once it would have been impossible, now you can easily pass a day in the Mission without ever noticing the smell of asada or the thump of Norteño music.
Having lived away from the Bay Area for over six years—and spent the better part of the last two falling in love with the tacos of central Texas—my memories of Mission Street taquerias have started to fade.
When I returned to the Bay Area last weekend, I took the BART train from San Francisco's International Airport straight to the Mission's 24th Street Station (where no less than seven taquerias populate a one-block radius) to determine what sets this city's best tacos apart.
The Winner: La Taqueria
It seemed that my taco quest was doomed as I walked back to Mission Street and into La Taqueria. All I wanted was some soft cabeza, but I demurred and ordered my last two carnitas and asada tacos.
Several minutes later, when they called my order ("Number 1!") and I picked up the basket, it was an undeniable moment of revelation: butcher paper. In one simple move, the cooks at La Taqueria had tamed the beast, swaddling their tacos in a distinctly diaper-like wrapping. And unlike my previous stops on the tour, rather than being overwhelmed by the meat's taste and texture, here I could savor each ingredient equally in every bite. The beans and pico de gallo were simple and fresh; the tortillas were soft but held tight; and the meats were calibrated to taste exactly of their specific flavor and nothing more.
Final Thoughts: San Francisco vs. Texas Tacos
This was when I came to understand that the San Francisco taco is not about noise, screaming with flavor and heat as they do back in Texas. Like the climate and the pervading social mode here, the S.F. taco is fundamentally mellow. It's bigger, more even-tempered, and sits a little heavier in the stomach, which is all to say that the only dessert I could sanction after this tour was a long siesta.
2779 Mission Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map) 415-824-7877
2731 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110 (map) 415-643-7001
Papalote Mexican Grill
3409 24th Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map) 415-970-8815
2889 Mission Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map) 415-285-7117