Travelling to San Francisco

On a mission for the world’s best taco in San Francisco, the city by the bay?.

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On a mission for the world’s best taco in San Francisco, the city by the bay

At the southern end of Mission Street, amid the fruit stands and pawnshops, is a sign that reads simply La Taquería. Here in America’s taco heartland, San Francisco’s gritty Mission District, that name speaks volumes. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of taquerías packed into the neighbourhood, humble taco joints serving Mexican street food to clientele who know their jalapenos from their habaneros. To call yourself La Taquería – literally, the taco stand – in this context is brassy, even confrontational. It says, “I alone am worthy of the name. The one, the only.” 

With carne asada like this, however, it’s hard to argue.

The Mission District is just a brisk subway ride from the cable cars and fishermen’s wharves of San Francisco’s well-touristed centre. But in appearance, demographics and culture, it’s a world away. Settled by waves of Mexicans, then Central and South Americans, Mission is where men in cowboy hats pull hand-drawn ice cream carts, tinkling bells to attract customers. It’s where sentences start in Spanish and slip into English and bandana-wearing homeboys share sidewalks with bearded hipsters in tight jeans, all against a backdrop of faded palms, vibrant wall murals and crumbling theatre marquees. 

My mission in the Mission, home to some of the best Mexican food in North America, is to find the perfect taco. Not the crunchy kind made famous by a talking chihuahua. The real deal: soft corn tortillas, hand-rolled and stuffed with beans, meat and spice. On a street corner in front of Taquería El Toro, my first stop, I spot two guys in black cowboy hats and leather jackets, accordions slung over their shoulders. I take this as a good sign. Inside: a no-frills, cafeteria-style assembly line. The aproned server, commanding an impressive station of marinated meats and brightly coloured salsas, fires a question in Spanish, then – sensing my confusion – repeats in English. 

Three dollars buys a plate piled high with barbecued pork and diced tomato, tortillas buried somewhere beneath. Burly construction workers, hungry and dusty from ripping up the street out front, crowd the table next to me, pushing through tacos in two bites. Mine are succulent and addictively flavoured. But heavenly? Not quite. I push on. Back on Mission Street, under the high-key California sun, I pass shops selling Sponge Bob pinatas, tamales and – in telling profusion – cheap duffle bags and knock-off suitcases: the gear of choice for a transient population. 

As I work deeper into the neighbourhood, the afternoon spirals into a blur of salt, fat, guacamole and seasoned meats. At La Oaxaqueña, under a Frida Kahlo knock-off, I try tacos of pork and pineapple, long slivers of jalapeno crisping my palate. Further on I stumble on tofu tacos – bland, pricey, heinously inauthentic – and curse myself for the misstep. I soldier onward in the afternoon heat, marching past dozens of taquerías, peering hopefully in windows. Inside La Corneta, shafts of sun pierce a skylight, flooding a giant mural of Madre María. Auspicious? No. The mole proves bitter. The chicken is dry. 

Sun and middling tacos have tempered my enthusiasm when I finally reach the Alamo-style arches of La Taquería. I pick up my order, steeled by now for disappointment. But the carne asada, through some miracle of taco alchemy, is impossibly rich and uncommonly juicy. I head to the counter for another round. Around the room, an easy democracy of white, black and Latino diners down taco upon taco. From a beat-up radio, the strains of a Mexican ballad drift into the restaurant, muffled by the glorious sizzling of beef, chicken and pork.