Though he grudgingly admits that her neighborhood is "world headquarters for the San Francisco burrito ... so good that at times I've been tempted to put it on my list of favorite dishes that rarely seem to be served outside their place of origin," and he lists three taquerias at which he has eaten terrific burritos, Trillin seems to hit a significant stumbling block with the fact that you have to eat your burritos in situ or get takeout. He's used to the dazzling food-delivery possibilities of Manhattan ("one more reason," he writes, "why it made sense to live in New York rather than San Francisco," as he schemes to convince Abigail to move back near dear old Dad). (I am sympathetic to Trillin on two counts, one being that I just moved back near my dear old dad, and the other from a memory of a conversation I had with a girlfriend when we were both moving from Manhattan to L.A. I thought we were feeling the same way until I realized that I was bemoaning the loss of museums and galleries and theaters and performance spaces, all things that drew me out of my house, and my friend, a mild agoraphobe, breathed, prayerfully, "You can get anything you want delivered!")
But for me part of the charm of eating restaurant food is, well, eating in restaurants. It's not that I don't relish the single-girl, Sex and the City cliché of TV, takeout Chinese, and a pint of Häagen-Dazs, but there's a deadly sameness to your living quarters, no matter how tasty the takeout. Get out of the house! Live a little!
It wasn't just Trillin's article that sent me on a mission into the Mission; a couple of other recent publications had made me hungry for antojitos, too. The useful book Chef's Night Out, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, questions 100 "top chefs" about their favorite American eateries "from four-star restaurants to neighborhood favorites." Traci des Jardins mentions La Taqueria (one that Trillin skips), and Mario Battali votes for Taqueria San Jose #2 ("Why #2? Because it's better than #3"). In the July 2002 issue of Food and Wine, the annual Best New Chefs issue, Hugh Acheson of the Five and Ten in Athens, Ga. (he once cooked at Gary Danko), says that his favorite place to eat on a $10 budget is La Taqueria. Mark Sullivan of the Village Pub in Woodside would spend that same $10 on a beer and a burrito at Taqueria La Cumbre -- coincidentally Trillin's daughter Abigail's favorite.
It was also mine, of yore, though probably as much for its proximity to the Roxie and its swell graphics -- La Cumbre's logo, as described by Trillin, is a "sort of Latinized Ava Gardner wearing crossed bandoliers and carrying both a bugle and an unfurled Mexican flag" -- as for its tacos or burritos. In fact, though Trillin confines his reporting to burritos, I'm really more of a taco girl, myself (they are called taquerias, after all, not burriterias), which comes from a decided preference for supple corn tortillas over stodgy flour ones, and from a desire to taste the true flavor of the pig or the cow unobscured by rice, beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, whatever. These are all excellent foodstuffs, alone or in combination, but as Trillin points out, the Mission burrito is "a perfect rolled-up meal," and he "would differ only in describing it as "two or three perfect rolled-up meals.'"
I start my taco trek by ordering three at La Taqueria: carnitas (shredded roast pork fried in pig fat), lengua (beef tongue), and cabeza (head, which bears no resemblance to its source, unlike the vividly described whole-head barbacoa that sickens Leslie in Edna Ferber's Giant; by the time it reaches your taco, it's been stewed and shredded into submission). La Taqueria is steamy, underdecorated (a plain rectangular crowded room), not particularly comfortable, and efficient. As with all the Mission taquerias, you line up and give your order, wait for it to materialize, and grab a seat at a small or communal table. Both the lengua and the cabeza are dressed with chopped cilantro and minced onion; the carnitas has an additional garnish of diced tomatoes and a few whole pinto beans. I enjoy the tongue's unique texture, at the same time grainy and suave, and the elusive, gamy flavor of the cabeza, but the sentimental favorite is the carnitas. (In L.A., I drove my laundry clear across town to Silverlake, not because of the superior quality of the fluff-and-fold available on Sunset Boulevard, but because of the cleaners' proximity to Tacos Delta, where I would pause for two carnitas tacos, with extra onions and cilantro, please.)
After my snack at La Taqueria, I walk back down Mission, past numberless dry-goods stores selling bright, cheap merchandise and the art deco marquees of vanished movie palaces, mourning the days when the neighborhood could support several big screens, to Taqueria Can-Cun, a smaller, more colorful place than La Taqueria, hung with intricately cut-out plastic flags and lined with hot tropical murals. Inspired by the stacks of beautiful avocados, I ask to have some added to my al pastor taco -- thick, luscious, perfectly ripe slices laid across the well-spiced, moist chunks of pork. (Chips and cups of two fresh salsas come with my $2.50 taco.) I'm not surprised that the walls are covered with framed "Best Of" testimonials from half a dozen publications -- including SF Weekly.
I try to pace myself, wanting to check out a couple more places, but the succulence of the carnitas at La Taqueria and the cumin-scented al pastor at Can-Cun win out over abstinence. I walk up to Valencia, hoping that some brisk window-shopping will restore my appetite. When I enter Den, a furniture store, I see two employees enjoying big, fat, beany burritos -- a meal, they tell me, purchased a few blocks away at Taqueria El Toro. I'm working my way toward La Cumbre, so I make a stop at El Toro to check it out. It's a blindingly clean corner spot, which my roommate Cathy, who used to live in the Mission, has already told me is related to Taqueria Pancho Villa, the favorite of Calvin Trillin's friend Ed. I'm a little shocked to see that it proudly advertises "No Lard" right under "Authentic Freshly Made Mexican Food," something of a contradiction in my book. (If you're going for the pig, why not celebrate all of it?)
I continue my walk, browsing at Forest Books on 16th Street and the Abandoned Planet bookstore on Valencia, inevitably adding a few tomes to my satchel. Taqueria La Cumbre is even cuter than I remember it, pleasantly comfy and dimly lit after the bustling La Taqueria and icy-clean El Toro. But I'm not ready to re-enter the eating fray; I decide to return to La Cumbre for dinner, after the night's entertainment, when I'll also try Pancho Villa, right around the corner.
I'm on my way to Cafe Du Nord to see an evening of restaurant stories titled "Kitchen Confidential," produced by Porch Light. I get there more than an hour before the scheduled start time of 7, thinking, because of the Cafe in the name, that I could obtain a cup of same, sit at a table, and read. But the door to the subterranean space is padlocked, and I share my grumpiness with a girl who, it turns out, has been shivering on the sidewalk for 45 minutes. Judy and I, and eventually her sister Amy, are joined in solidarity on the waiting list. We get in and are treated to an amiable if slightly less than shapely evening of reminiscences, which (surprise!) leaves us hungry. The girls are willing to join me for a taco or three; alas, La Cumbre has just closed for the night, at 9 (I'm happy I snagged my free calendar featuring the La Cumbre girl that afternoon). So we join the line at the enormous, lofty, refrigerator-white Pancho Villa, whose own excellent graphic features a mildly Arcimboldo-esque bandido with chile-pepper eyebrows and mustachio.
It has the largest menu of any of the places I've visited, sliding from taqueria almost into restaurant status. Among us we make short work of a soupy coctel de camarones (I prefer its cubes of ripe avocado to the big, firm, pink shrimp), a freshly fried red snapper taco, a massive but slightly dull quesadilla stuffed with chile verde chicken (an ingredient I'd like better unobscured with bland cheese), and a very tasty carne asada taco, washed down with a superb fresh watermelon agua fresca. We love the lavish salsa bar, which features whole radishes and cut-up limes as well as an array of half a dozen salsas. Despite the harsh light, we -- well, we don't linger, exactly, but we pause long enough for a couple of alfajor cookies, powdery discs joined by a smear of caramel.
I'll hit La Cumbre and San Jose #2 next time.