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Food & Travel

On a Mission to the heart of San Francisco

Murals and Mexican food spice up any visit

A mural on the side of Cafe Venice in the Mission District of San Francisco. A mural on the side of Cafe Venice in the Mission District of San Francisco. (Patricia Borns for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO — La Palma Foods has been around for almost six decades. If the Mission District’s heart is 24th Street, then its Latin aorta is La Palma. First it offered house-ground cornmeal and tortillas to Mexican immigrants, then, when Central and South Americans joined them here, La Palma’s repertoire expanded with huaraches, sopes, and arepas.

With 500 murals in the neighborhood, and as many flavors of food, the Mission District inundates the senses. Taste of the Mission, a new three-hour walking tour, helps visitors find their compass. Created by culinary guide Lisa Rogovin, who is joined by muralist Patricia Rose of the Precita Eyes Muralists Association, the tour points the way to what’s new and good in the city’s sunniest neighborhood.

New eateries are occasionally spray-painted with the words “cafe gentrification,’’ explains Yaron Milgrom, a newcomer who co-owns Local Mission Eatery. As the new restaurant was setting up housekeeping, it got a thumbs up — no graffiti. “I fell in love with the neighborhood. I wanted to contribute something to the street,’’ says Milgrom, handing out corned-beef brisket sandwiches to tour participants. Partnering with Michelin-starred chef Jacob Des Voignes, Milgrom, who has a PhD in medieval Jewish mysticism, renovated space in a former butcher shop. On the tour, you can peer through the walk-in refrigerator’s Plexiglas window (we spotted a goat ready for cooking); or borrow the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook from the lending library. The hyper-local menu is accessible: $9 sandwich plates and layered dishes; the chef’s taco holds a surprisingly good combination of smoked potatoes, goat pibil, lacinato kale, and house-made queso fresco.

After scarfing up maple-bacon-apple doughnuts at Dynamo Donuts, Rogovin heads for La Victoria, a Latin bakery established in 1951. Second-generation owner Jaime Maldonado makes orejas (ear-shaped puff pastries) and ninos envueltos (“rolled-up babies,’’ or jellyrolls). These sweets have such a strong tradition in families, says Maldonado, that he’s not surprised to see someone buying four dozen at once. “One kid eats three a day,’’ says the baker. “I grew up that way.’’ Maldonado also runs a floating commissary kitchen, where guest chefs come to cook for community events and food-cart parties.

Along the way, you can see that the Mission’s murals tell a pageant of stories. Rose knows them all. She leads the way up Balmy Alley, interpreting murals about the golden age of Mexican cinema; about separation, as an El Salvadoran father leaves his wife and child to seek work; about AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, and the triumph of peace over violence imagined by young spray can artists.

In an area associated with burritos, Rogovin tells the group: “The burrito isn’t Mexican.’’ In fact, it was invented in California. We are en route to El Farolito, where the Mission burrito was first made. El Farolito wins us over with its Al Pastor taco, filled with slow-roasted pork, which is Rogovin’s favorite.

For great burritos, Rogovin recommends La Taqueria, a no-frills Mission Street joint, where flour tortillas are rolled like lightning using whole, instead of refried, pinto beans. Nearby you’ll also find Elements, a slightly wacky but wonderful hostel where young travelers meet on the rooftop for cocktails and a soaring view.

The Mission melds first- and second-generation Mexican and Central American immigrants, gays, hipsters, and descendents of German, Irish, and other European families who were some of the original residents. They live side-by-side, fueled by good cuisine.

Taste of the Mission tour www.inthekitchenwithlisa.com

La Palma Foods 2884 24th St., San Francisco, 415-647-1500, www.lapalmasf.com

Local Mission Eatery 3111 24th St., San Francisco, 415-655-3422, www.localmissioneatery.com

La Victoria Bakery 2937 24th St., San Francisco, 415-642-7120, www.lavictoriabakery.com

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.