Finding the "perfect" meal in San Francisco can feel like Mission Impossible. Who knew so many food options could be squashed into forty-nine square miles? If you're tired of climbing the hills of North Beach or pressing through the crowds of Chinatown, head to the unofficial "Foodie Central" of San Francisco: the Mission District.
Although it's renowned for its Latino dishes, a new wave of foodie fanatics have opened up the most popular restaurants the city has to offer. In fact, the neighborhood has become so popular for new restaurants that the city council recently considered changing zoning laws to allow restaurants to open on the second floor of buildings.
The best buzz for food is definitely in the Mission, with classics like La Tacqueria still going strong, as well as overlooked gems like Yamo finally getting their just desserts (so to speak.)
Before dining, your appetizer should be walking up and down the hippest runway of the Mission, Valencia Street, where some of the most popular restaurants have opened. The Mission is mostly flat and gets more sun than any other neighborhood in San Francisco, so start your dinner search mid-afternoon, giving you plenty of time for Happy Hour sangria and soaking up the eclectic atmosphere of this vibrant community.
Mission Chinese Food
You could walk right past 2234 Mission Street and not think twice that you're passing one of the most popular restaurants in the city. And not just best Chinese restaurants outside of Chinatown, best restaurants, period. So good that head chef Danny Bowien opened a similar restaurant in Manhattan last year, and those picky New Yorkers were forced to admit that San Francisco did indeed have fantastic Chinese food, too. Like most California cooking, this cuisine has been slightly "westernized," which creates its unique appeal. Most dishes are hot and spicy, so be forewarned, particularly the beer-brined sichuan pickles, a local favorite. (415-863-2800)
ICHI Sushi + NI Bar
Owners and partners Tim and Erin Archuleta have put their heart and soul into this small, popular sushi restaurant. Since opening, ICHI Sushi has won Best of the Bay in five outlets, was named one of Zagat San Francisco Bay Area Guide 2013's Top 20 Restaurants, and is included in the 2013 San Francisco Louis Vuitton City Guide. Sustainability is the focus, and menus change seasonally. ICHI offers Omakase service at the bar and full menu service at tables. Brand new location on 3282 Mission is even bigger and more comfortable than their old space in Bernal Heights. One of the most popular restaurants in the Mission area. ((415) 525-4750)
If you want to experience the cutting edge of California cuisine with your steak, Lolinda is the best place to capture that avant-garde spirit. Situated in the red-hot Mission district, where new and inventive restaurants seem to pop open overnight, Lolinda combines the rich history of Argentinean steak with the new-wave foodie fanaticism that has grabbed this town by its collar-tucked napkin. That means you can start your meal off with traditional pequeno, an appetizer that can be cold like ceviche or hot like croquetas, and finish with an inventive peanut butter mousse. In between you can delight yourself with tira (crosscut short ribs), matambra (flank steak), or ojo de bife (ribeye steak). (415-550-6970)
This cozy and relaxed eatery marks the best of a new session of upscaling happening to Mission District cuisine. With a light wood interior and sparkling service, Range welcomes the yuppie crowd with open arms. The meal is bound to get off to a good start as well, with an extensive wine list perfect to be paired with seasonally-changing entrees like pan roasted bavette steak with squash blossoms and seared Hawaiian ono with green gazpacho. But don't overlook the appetizer and dessert menus, where finds like aprium salad with goat cheese and seascape strawberry shortcake with rose geranium creme are little bits of delight. (4152828283)
While Foreign Cinema's misleading moniker may seem a better fit for a movie theater than an oyster bar, this restaurant's real attraction is their Mediterranean-inspired menu and outstanding oysters. They do, in fact, offer film showings in the adjoining courtyard, an added perk for those savoring tasty shellfish like the Hog Island Sweet, Marin Gem, Chatham and Steamboat oysters. The dinner menu changes regularly, and brunch is served on weekends. If you're looking for that "one stop that has it all" date night, make it the Foreign Cinema, because after the meal and movie, you can slip over to their adjoining bar, Lazlo's, and dance the night away. (415-648-7600)
Simplicity and authenticity reign at this small, popular restaurant. Zinc tabletops and exotic hardwoods bear this out, as does the incomparable Italian fare with its top-notch ingredients. Treat yourself with grilled calamari salad, braised rabbit, steak frites, roasted chicken, or salmon with fresh vegetables. Although Delfina has garnered much acclaim since it premiered, the trattoria still delights with casual ambience, friendly service and satisfyingly reasonable prices – all boons to dining aficionados. Delfina is highly regarded not just locally but nationally, so if you have time for only one Italian meal on your trip, you can't go wrong with Delfina. (415-552-4055)
The Mission is known for its cheap but excellent Mexican food (see: La Tacqueria). Yamo keeps the price low but switches the cuisine by going east, as in Far East, as in Burma. If you like hole-in-the-wall bars, then you'll like the atmosphere of this hole-in-the-wall eatery, which can become so packed you'll think your own elbow is sizzling on the always active wok. If you're not into that kind of unasked for press-the-flesh atmosphere, then order ahead for take-out. The low price for this kind of quality is unheard of, particularly Yamo's sinfully crispy samusas and egg rolls, which should come before whatever else you decide to order. ((415) 553-8911)
If you view dinner as an adventure, head to Bar Tartine. Taking a no holds barred approach to cooking, co-chefs Cortney and Nick mix and match as many styles and ingredients the world's cupboard has to offer. Just one meal could have three different cultures mixed in, so set your taste buds on "open-minded" before sitting down to eat. Rest assured that whatever ingredient is used, it's local, sometimes as local as the next room, as is the case with Bar Tartine's delectable cheeses and spices. If you think your mouth deserves a trip around the world, close your eyes and open wide at Bar Tartine's. (4154871600)
Flour + Water
If you believe the most successful plan is a simple one, Flour and Water might just be the spot for you. The name says it all; Chef Thomas McNaughton is serious about the flour and water that goes into his many different kinds of pasta, pasta that he insists on getting right time and time again. (He was trained in Bologna by "committed pasta artisans.") But don't fear that dinner will just be a bowl of pasta; the pasta based dishes are enlivened and dresesd up with a gorgeous array of locally sustained fruits, vegetables and meats. This is cooking with a conscience, for sure. (415-826-7000)
At La Taqueria, you'll not only get a great Mexican meal, but you'll save a little cash too! The menu specializes in burritos, tacos, and quesadillas served with beef, pork, sausage, or chicken. Carne asada comes highly praised, and chorizo sausage must be sampled before you leave. Long wooden dining tables are shared by guests, so enjoy a delightful meal and the opportunity to socialize with locals and tourists. Don't be discouraged by long lines; the staff has been doing this for years, and they'll get your order to you so quick and so sizzling hot you'll need extra time for it to cool down. (415-285-7117)
About Tom Molanphy
The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom.
Tom has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 2000. His journalism has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, and 7x7. He teaches writing, journalism and literature at the Academy of Art University in downtown San Francisco. His latest book, Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life, is available through Outpost19.
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