Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Through the Looking Glass

We don't get to San Francisco often these days, as the traffic has become fierce and unpredictable.  Time was if you avoided rush hours you could get to SF as fast as you could reach Oakland from Berkeley; no longer.  So visiting The City, as we learned to call SF when we moved here many years ago, has become a very occasional outing.

But the rumor of good food will finally move us and last week we decided to have lunch at Mission Chinese Food, a once pop-up, now permanent restaurant on, what else, Mission Street, in what else, the Mission District.  It wasn't hard to find.

I first heard about this place in Mark Bittman's New York Times column.  A modern, completely untraditional Asian restaurant sharing space with a classic Chinese greasy spoon, cooking entirely different menus out of the same kitchen.  In the Asian food desert that is Paris, this made me sit up and salivate.

And so we lunched on fabulously spicy and biting fermented Sichuan pickles of cabbage and cucumbers with peanuts, jalapenos and herbs, sizzling cumin lamb with bits of delicious chili-marinated long beans, and Li Bao dry braised noodles.  The room was ill-lit and I wasn't able to get any decent photos of the food, but the New Year dragon over my head looked like he wanted some of our meal.  No way; we ate until we groaned.

And then we stepped out into Latin America.

The Mission District is traditionally Mexican and Latin American.  The stores cater to this market and the signs are predominately in Spanish.  You could live your life here speaking only Spanish, and some people do.  It's the kind of place where they still sell "used clothes" in two languages rather than "vintage" in one.

But things have changed in recent years and the El Capitan theater is now a parking garage, badly needed in this overcrowded part of town especially since the demographic is changing from ethnic to hipster.  It reminds me in some ways of the Marais in Paris, once poor and Jewish, now pricey and hip.

The Mission hasn't completely capitulated, but it's getting harder to find an affordable apartment and the hottest restaurants are in these streets.  Cappucinos and single room occupancy hotels are cheek by jowl.  (Stir-fried pork jowl and radishes is on the Mission Chinese menu; oh sorry, that was my stomach forcing my fingers to type. So many dishes yet to try!)

On the way back to the car, I couldn't resist this evidence of the changing neighborhood. Do you think they got that phone number by accident or was someone at PacBell in a good mood the day they opened the account?

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