Looking for Tacos and Discovering Music, Art & Literature in the Mission

I was in San Francisco recently for a long weekend and I ended up spending an entire day walking through the Mission District. The Mission has a reputation for dishing up some of the best home-style Mexican food thanks to the area’s Latino heritage. But whilst the desire for a taco brought me here, it was my toothache that led me to discover the amazing stories and colourful street art of this eclectic neighbourhood.

I took a bus to the heart of the Mission District using my Muni mobile app and headed to La Taqueria for lunch. It’s rated 4.6 stars on Google and when I saw the massive queue, I knew this place had to be the real deal. The thirty minute wait didn’t deter me and I watched diners guzzling down their greasy food as I waited in line. The place was nicely done up with framed news articles and old photos lining one wall, whilst a colourful mural decorated the back of the restaurant. However everyone was really squished together on smallish tables and chairs. It was the kind of place where you eat quickly and leave.

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The famous, the one and only, La Taqueria in the Mission
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Crowded seating inside

The menu is simple and there was a choice of three options – tacos, burritos or quesadillas. I was worried about finding a seat so I decided to order a burrito as I figured that would be easier to eat standing up. As I got nearer to the front of the queue I was able to glimpse inside the kitchen and was filled with a silent horror. A chunky cook working the cold section was peeling sticky slices of cheese from a giant yellow block and squashing them onto meat patties for the grill with one hand, whilst scooping spoons of watery salsa into bread with another. On the hot plate behind him, fatty beef was bubbling in brown, meaty syrup.

“Can I please have a burrito… without beans” I asked the waitress when it was my turn to order. If anything was going to throw me over the edge, it would probably be the beans and I didn’t want a case of food poisoning to ruin my weekend. When my burrito was ready, I managed to find a seat outside. I slowly unwrapped the foil casing and bit into the giant, beast of a wrap. Slushy, tomato juice ran down my arm. The meat was salty and the bread was soggy. It tasted good and disgusting all at the same time, and I forced bite after bite down my throat until I was left wallowing in shame. That was a huge burrito and I had eaten nearly all of it.

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A sloppy burrito in the Mission district

I left La Taqueria with my camera slung around my neck to check out the neighbourhood and take a few snaps. I bumped into a tanned-skin man in a leather jacket just outside. He smiled with blackened teeth that probably hadn’t been brushed in years and asked me “hey, do you do head shots? I’m in show biz and I need some head shots done.” I let him know that I was just a tourist and I would be leaving after the weekend, to which he responded “fuck you bitch, I know Kim Kardashian” and walked off. Wow, people seemed to be rude in this neighbourhood!

Maybe it was the sloppy Mexican food or perhaps the rude passerby, but suddenly my toothache flared up. I searched for the nearest drugstore in Google Maps and headed back up the main road. But by the time I had reached the intersection my pain had intensified so I started Googling emergency dentists in San Francisco. Did I mention it was also the Sunday after Thanksgiving?

Whilst leaving desperate voicemails and swearing aggressively at my phone, I noticed a striking mural of two native Indians. The San Francisco bay area was inhabited by the Ohlone people prior to the arrival of Spanish explorers and missionaries in the late 18th century. Massacres against the Ohlones occurred in the 1850s, which some people have described as akin to genocide. There is a lot street art in the Mission district dedicated to their stories and plight and this particular artwork was painted by Mark Bode, Mel Waters, Nite Own, Dagon and Dino in 2016.

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Mission Coffee street art at Osage Alley and 24th Street

I clearly wasn’t going to find a dentist but I needed some painkillers to soothe the throbbing in my mouth so I continued up Mission Street. A lanky, black man soon overtook me and commented “damn” as he shook his head at a swanky theatre on the opposite side of the road. It had that old school, hip 60s design and was done up in bright blue and white colours, but it was clearly a new addition to the neighbourhood. The guy turned to me, explaining that he grew up the Mission and this was the first time he had been back in over ten years. Back in the day, everyone went to the old Alamo Drafthouse up the road, not this “piece of modern shit”.

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A local described this as a piece of modern shit

It was early afternoon when I reached Walgreens. The pharmacist had just re-opened the drug counter after a lunch break and there were thirty-odd people in the queue. There was no way I was going to wait around here. The day was slipping through my fingers and I’d already spent the last two hours queuing for food and making pointless calls. I looked up the next closest drugstore, which was on the other side of the Mission district, about a forty minute walk away. So I headed back to the main intersection for the fourth time that day. Things were getting lively here now. A small marquee had been setup and a music band was belting out Latino hits. People in their daggy weekend attire, tracksuit bottoms and all, had dropped their shopping and were dancing in the street.

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People put down their bags and stop for a dance
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Enjoying live Latino music in the Mission District

The Mission is considered to be the oldest neighbourhood in San Francisco and it has deep Latino roots. Mexicans and Central American immigrants settled here during the post-war years. The hippies and artists moved in next during the 70s. The result was a diverse and eclectic community, perhaps a little on the poor side, who wanted to express themselves through music and street art. As I took turn left down 24th for the long walk to the drugstore, I discovered many vibrant artworks telling the stories and histories of this neighbourhood. Whilst the area is now becoming gentrified, the tradition of expression through street art is not dying.

Carnival by Rigel “Crayone” Juratovac and Alexander Tadlock at 24th Street and Folsom is an iconic mural celebrating the spirit and colour of carnival. For the last forty years, Carnival has been a Memorial Day weekend event that showcases the best of Latino and Caribbean music, food and costume, whilst creating opportunities for local shops and schools to benefit.

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Carnival by Crayone Juratovac and Alexander Tadlock

You don’t really need a map to discover and enjoy the street art in the Mission District. I was in street art heaven, happily clicking away as I walked down 24th Street. I’ve picked out a few of my favourite murals here.

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Once upon a time in the Mission by Max Attril and Fred Alvarad
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Artwork name unknown, found in a carpark
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A mural painted by Mario Cid in honour of the Latino Community
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A vibrant scene showing all the elements of the old Mission community

I was still desperate for painkillers but I had to stop for a browse when I chanced upon the Alley Cat Bookstore. America is fantastic for bookshops (unlike Singapore) and this is a great little place for secondhand literature as well as a wide range of political novels and history books. I was feeling inspired by the gritty and anti-gentrification vibe of the Mission, so I purchase a few selected feminist texts before continuing on my way.

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I wish they had bookstores like this in Singaopre

Balmy Alley, which is half way down 24th Street, is where most tourists go to soak up the local art. Every wall and flat surface of this narrow walkway is covered in paint and stories, thanks to a concerted town effort fifty years ago to transform what was a neglected alley into an outdoor art gallery. La Cultura Contiene la Semilla de Resistencia que Resplendor by Miranda Bergman is found here. It was painted in 1984 to call attention to the poverty and violence in Central America. Enrique’s Journey painted in 2009 by Josue Rojas is another Balmy Alley mural, which was inspired by the stories of unaccompanied minors travelling from Central America to the USA.

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La Cultura Contiene la Semilla de Resistencia que Resplendor
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Enrique’s Journey by Josue Rojas on Balmy Alley

The famous Mission Makeover on Balmey Alley is my favourite mural as it is a social commentary on the evolution of the Mission District today. In the words of the artist, local resident Lu Cia, the mural depicts two Missions “La Mísion of my youth, filled with a vibrant Latino culture, rich in art and history, a place that I have lived my entire life; and the current Madeover Mission, remodeled and revised with designer boutiques, high priced cafes, less Latino immigrant families, and dwindling diversity.”

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Left panel of the Mission Makeover showing the old Mission district
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Right panel of the Mission Makeover, showing the Mission today

The Mission is currently undergoing gentrification. Young and wealthy hipsters who work in Silicon Valley are moving in and driving up the rents. More and more trendy cafes and bookstores are opening up whilst the old Latino butchers and grocers are closing down. Lu Cia says, “I want the new Mission residents to respect and understand the history of the older Mission and acknowledge that there was once a thriving community that barely resembles a shell of itself. This Balmy Alley mural honors those individuals, businesses and families who left without choice.”

On closer inspection of the mural you can see the well-to-do lady is holding a coffee cup with the logo Starsucks written on it and is carrying a shopping bag from Wealth Foods. To one side, a homeless artist sleeps on an Andy Warhol-style print of Brillo Soap Pads.

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Close-up of the Starbucks coffee cups
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The women in the mural shops at Wealth Foods

Heading back out on the main road where 24th Street meets York is the captivating La Llorona’s Sacred Waters depicting a manic blue scene of tamale vendors, sidewalk musicians, drunks, junkies, bible-thumpers and hipsters. I can imagine this was what the Mission was like before the turn of the century and it looks like an interesting place to be!

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La Llorona’s Sacred Waters on 24th and York

I finally made it to Walgreens and the pharmacist recommended several painkillers and anti-inflammetries relieved some of my tooth pain. If it was not for my throbbing toothache, I may not have had such an interesting day walking through the Mission District of San Francisco.

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