Monday’s Neighborhood: Valencia Street, Mission District, San Francisco
You won’t go hungry or thirsty or uncaffeinated anywhere on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. The street is the new symbol of the Mission’s recent surge in popularity (and rent prices), as the gritty aspects of the district evolve into boutiques, colorful shops, and of course, restaurants. Like its cross-country sibling Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Mission is well-known for being the neighborhood of hipsters. It’s also a fascinating mix of young money arriving from the Financial District and tech start-ups of South of Market. It has long been a Hispanic neighborhood, along with pockets of the city’s Chinese population. As you work your way across the Mission from expansive Dolores Park to the west and on east towards Mission Street, the grittiness certainly becomes more and more apparent.
Food can certainly be considered a primary driving force behind the Mission’s emergence. The most acclaim deservedly goes to what I consider the country’s premier block for eating, on 18th Street between Guerrero and Dolores. There, you’ll find Tartine, Delfina, Pizzeria Delfina, Bi-Rite Market, Bi-Rite Creamery, and Namu Gaju all in one single block. That’s tough to compete with.
However, the ten blocks from 14th Street to 24th Street on Valencia, two streets east of Dolores, may now be the single, most impressive dining stretch in a city full of them. And, it’s only getting better.
Starting between 14th and 15th, the city’s finest coffee roaster, and my pick for premier espresso shot, can be found at Four Barrel Coffee. Everything about the new Valencia Street can be found here on an otherwise nothing block. There is a parklet outside, a packed bike rack, hipsters left and right, laptops on every other table, coffee connoisseurs, no shortage of tattoos, and an open air, joie de vivre that is the complete opposite of the dark stretches of the Mission.
At the corner of 15th and Valencia is Pica Pica, serving all sorts of Venezuelan sandwiches on corn breads, most notably the grilled corn flour cakes known as arepas. The South American theme continues with Venga and its freshly baked empanadas. Across the street is Little Star Pizza, known for its deep-dish pies.
The block between 16th and 17th is the most densely populated, food and nightlife-wise, home to the superb Eastern European cooking and innovative sandwiches of Nick Balla at Bar Tartine, along with Delfina’s Roman sibling, Locanda (superb cocktails in addition to the cuisine). Blondie’s and Casanova are the happening bars, while afterwards patrons fill up on burritos at the classic taqueria La Cumbre. New additions are bringing the crowds nightly here, from Coastal Indian at Gajalee, to Southwest by way of Mexico at West of Pecos (note the mac n cheese with green chiles), and to Thai House, a branch of the superb spot in the Tenderloin, Thai House Express. The defining Peruvian restaurant of San Francisco, Limon, has morphed into another Limon Rotisserie here. On the 17th Street end, Charles Phan has turned his original Slanted Door spot into Wo Hing Ming General Store, another terrific cocktail spot. Next door is Frjtz, a Belgian café with everything, yes, fries.
The next block brings a strange juxtaposition. On one side is the police department station. On the other is the adult store “Good Vibrations,” a thrift store, and the dive bar The Elbo Room. Further down the block Valencia’s largest restaurant, Amber Dhara, just opened next door to Luna Park, an L.A. import, and across from one of the Mission’s better taquerias, El Buen Sabor.
The block between 18th and 19th is where the most action is these days. Farina Pizza just opened from the Italian restaurant Farina, best known for its $26 pesto pasta. You’ll find the sequel to Tacolicious in the Marina, Tacolicious II, as popular as ever, and its tequila bar Mosto. Try the Marina Girl salad and guajillo braised short rib tacos. The old Valencia Hotel has now become one enormous dining center. There is the restaurant Grub and 780 Café. Mission Cheese makes a definitive grilled cheese sandwich, and Abbott’s Cellar also just opened, from the folks behind Mission craft beer stalwart The Monk’s Kettle. The much anticipated Craftsman and Wolves is a sleek café-bakery-patisserie from former Quince pastry chef William Werner. Don’t miss the sipping caramel with croissant flakes, a chocolate, caramel, and Vietnamese cinnamon cube cake, or the famed “Rebel Within,” an asiago cheese-green onion muffin studded with sausage, and filled with a liquid yolk sous vide egg in the center. It’s a complete reversal of the best quiche you’ve ever had.
Soon, Dandelion Chocolate, a boutique chocolatier, will be opening a shop and café here too. In the meantime, grab there chocolate bars at Four Barrel’s cafe.
Catch your breath and cross 19th Street. Grab a sandwich at Rhea’s and a drink with Irish soda bread at the Phoenix Lounge. Next to a brand new playground is one of the city’s best, ambitious, mid-priced to high-end restaurants, Range. You want the coffee-smoked pork shoulder here for sure, but everything is terrific.
The bookstore wars rage with Borderlands Books north of 20th and Dog Ear Books on the other side of 20th. This stretch continues the superb dining with Herbivore, a vegetarian grill, tea at Tokyo Futon, Xanath Ice Cream, and no shortage of coffeehouses with Javalencia, Blue Fig, and Mission Creek Café. Near 21st Street is Dosa on Valencia, Emily and Anjan Mitra’s excellent South Indian spot with excellent dosas and much more. Note the beautiful, re-painted Victorians and parklet with a dinosaur statue by Dosa.
Across 21st we go for more Indian at Udupi Palace and to purchase a bike at Valencia Cyclery or see a show at the Marsh. Most noteworthy would be the Ritual Coffeehouse, home to one of the city’s finest coffee roasters. The coffee far surpasses the laptop-filled café. For some good old classic Americana, visit Bogaloos in an old soda fountain.
Across 22nd from Bogaloos is the bistro Garçon! Just don’t yell that to the waiter. This stretch becomes a bit desolate with the City College of San Francisco campus here. However, there is the suburban chain The Crepehouse here with a charming parklet, a gastropub called The West Wood, Scarlet Sage Herb Co., a unique herbs and book store, and the Italian market Lucca.
Anchoring Valencia at 23rd is the decent pizza, better salads, and some of the city’s premier cocktails (get the Rattlesnake) at the always-jammed Beretta. At Valencia and 24th is the new wine bar center of San Francisco, St. Vincent, from David Lynch, formerly the sommelier at Quince and one of the country’s leading voices on Italian wines. Don’t skip the warm soft pretzel or the intriguing beer list.
Still hungry? Grab some cookies at Anthony’s Cookies north of 25th, then walk all the way back for beers at the classic biker beer garden Zeitgeist, near the Central Freeway.
Now this is an impressive dining stretch if I’ve ever seen one. A no-brainer for the neighborhood of the week.