The flavours of San Francisco's Mission District
When we touched down in San Francisco after a month in Myanmar, we were practically ravenous for some Western food.
We'd been dreaming about thick, fluffy pancakes drizzled with Boysonberry sauce and maple syrup; huge burgers dripping with caramelised onions; steaming bowls of mac n' cheese...
Once we'd satisfied these initial cravings, however, we wanted to go beyond the burgers and find out more about Californian cuisine.
Taking a food tour was the best option for us, and Avital's progressive culinary experience turned out to be the best tour.
Founder and owner Avital previously spent time living in France before becoming a certified sommelier in the United States. She started leading artisan food and wine tours six years ago, and Avital Tours has since developed a reputation of being one of the best food and drink tours in the Bay Area.
The tours not only offer the opportunity to eat some seriously good food, but a chance to speak with the restaurant owners and chefs, which offers a unique behind-the-scenes storytelling of iconic neighbourhoods - such as the Mission District. We were drawn to this area for its Latino character and the fact that it is not as touristy as Chinatown, or North Beach.
It was in 'The Mission', outside Samovar Tea Bar, that we met our guide for the day - Margherita.
Originally from Florence, Margherita created a new flavour of gelato (wild strawberry, white chocolate and mint) as well as her own dessert business before moving to Oakland, just across the Bay.
She offered us some delicious chai from Samovar to kickstart our tour and began discussing what makes the Mission District such a perfect place for foodies.
The famously large and varied 'Mission Burrito' originated here in the 1960s, cementing the District as the 'go-to' place for Mexican food. Since the dot-com boom, the neighbourhood's traditional blue-collar Chicano vibe has been challenged by trendy, techie twentysomethings who are happy to queue an hour for an ice cream. Chic coffee shops sit aside grungy laundromats and political murals line the walls beside popular wine bars.
Many restaurants have kept the original Latin American flavours of the Mission, yet some have veered in different directions altogether, as we were about to discover.
Our first stop was West of Pecos, where bunches of chilli peppers hung from the ceiling and bull horns adorned the walls. The MacNiven brothers opened this laidback Southwestern restaurant in May 2012, offering comfort TexMex food in rustic surroundings.
We are greeted by Tyler, who won the $1 million grand prize on game show The Amazing Race in 2006, before entering the restaurant business with his brothers. He high-fives guests staff at the open kitchen and says hello to customers as he makes his way over to our table.
Instantly affable, Tyler jokes, "it's a hard life, sampling food and drink around the West," before presenting our pork belly Austin tacos - scrambled eggs, maple-glazed pork belly, avocado, cheese on flour tortillas with chipotle aioli. They are delicious.
The Californian edge is clear from the menu (e.g. kale tostadas) but the flavours of traditional Tex Mex remain. Tyler claims word of mouth is what has kept West of Pecos popular for five years, in a city where a vast majority of restaurants fail to stay open for more than nine months.
Next up, a 'cheese bar' which celebrates American artisan cheese and Californian beer and wine - Matt and I were in our element.
Mission Cheese is the co-creation of Sarah Dvorak, whose 'mission' was to escape the corporate world and become a cheesemonger. Sourcing the cheese for the restaurant was a mammoth task; Mission Cheese offer up to seventy cheeses at any one time from thirteen states. Many of the cheese on offer cost over $30 per pound!
Our cheesemonger presented an amazing Estero Gold Reserve from Valley Ford Cheese Co and a yummy goat's cheese gouda from Avalanche Cheese Company, which Matt washed down with a Citron Berliner Weisse. We were told loads about the cheese-making process, from the effect altitude has on the taste, to the differences between raw and pasteurised milks and how to store cheese properly.
One of our favourite restaurants in Sydney is Stinking Bishops, and we could imagine Mission Cheese becoming a firm favourite if we were to live in San Francisco!
Our third stop was Gracias Madre, an organic, vegan restaurant.
Sweet potato with nacho cashew cheese, crema, cilantro and pumpkin seeds filled our homemade corn tortillas, and it was pretty good. We are used to filling our tortillas with meat and cheese, but this option was less stodgy and just as tasty.
It was fascinating to watch the cooks prepare quesadillas and more in the large open kitchen and hear about where the ingredients come from: the Be Love Farm in Pleasants Valley near Vacaville.
The produce that lines the market shelves is all of the highest quality, which comes at a price. Yet, there was barely an inch of floorspace for all the customers queuing to buy juicy strawberries, cured meats and delicately-packaged condiments.
After opening in 1940, the market was sold in 1964 to the Mogannam family and eventually transformed in 1997 from a tired neighbourhood store to an upmarket foodie heaven. The only evidence of the market's history is it's faded facade that lines the sidewalk. Now, beehives sit on the roof and the market is proud of its close relationships with producers across the state.
Just across the street, there is a lengthy queue to the Creamery. Organic eggs, milk and cream come from Marin County's Straus Family Creamery, and are used to create sweet baked goods and of course, ice cream.
Margherita slips past the line of people to fetch our final snack; salted caramel ice cream. With an almost burnt taste, plenty of cream and the perfect amount of salt, it may just be our favourite version of this flavour we've ever tasted.
We enjoyed our food tour immensely and enjoyed learning about the local history as well as the story of iconic restaurants in the Mission District.
We felt more like locals than tourists, and that's exactly what Avital is going for.
Our Mission District food stops
Avital Tours’ three-hour culinary experience in the Mission District makes four stops and costs $84 (+$18 for the alcohol pairing) We stopped at the following restaurants:
Across Land & Sea received a discount in exchange for this review. As always, all opinions, photographs, typos are our own.