When most people crisscrossing the intersection at 16th and Mission streets are just beginning their daily commute, Juana and Justiniano Gomez' work day is well into its fourth hour. It won't end until 11 p.m. when the couple, Guatemalan-Americans who immigrated to San Francisco more than 30 years ago, arrive back at their home in the Excelsior District. The two proudly run the Antojitos San Miguel food cart in the northeast corner of the BART plaza at 16th and Mission.
The day started as it always does. The Gomezes are up by 4 a.m. and head first to the commissary near Monster Park, where they hitch their cart to a truck and drive to the family's San Miguel Restaurant near 29th and Mission streets. After the day's store of food is prepared and packed, they're off to their little corner of the BART plaza.
The Gomezes operate a custom-built vending cart, a sort of tricked-out hot-dog stand. At roughly ten feet long and nine feet wide, it's a handsome contraption, gleaming with stainless steel and surprisingly cozy inside despite being packed with gear: a flat-top grill, a small stove, a steam table lined with pans for sauces, two cooler cabinets, and a salad station with cutting board. The lunch hour is when the cart sees most of its business: On a good day, Justiniano says they'll clock about 200 sales.
Where most street-food vendors in San Francisco serve a handful of variations on well-known items — tacos, burritos, tortas — this cart serves a staggering twelve dishes, all of them straight from the kitchens of San Miguel, the small western Guatemalan town Juana and Justiniano hail from. Their best-sellers are the tacos dorados ($3.50), two crispy fried taquitos filled with pork, potatoes, and carrots and topped with red chile sauce and a sprinkle of crumbled cotija cheese; and the tamal guatmalteco ($2.50), a Guatemalan-style tamale steamed in a banana leaf and filled with spicy stewed chicken.
Around 2 p.m., a middle-aged man in a blazer approaches, scanning the menu, a series of color-printed photos tacked next to the window. He asks if the tamal guatmalteco is a jalapeño popper.
"No, no, no. This is a plantain leaf," Juana says patiently.
"Oh, like bananas?"
"Bananas, yes," she says, a little amused.
Moments later the man walks away with a smile, balancing a fat tamale on a small paper plate. In a town where Mexican food rules among Latin cuisine, selling Guatemalan food takes a little explaining. "Especially for the American people," she says. "But even the people from Nicaragua or El Salvador or Mexico. It's a different kind of tamale for them too."
Despite the well-known perils of the restaurant business – razor-thin profit margins, huge failure rates, brutally long hours — the Gomezes have never considered swapping professions. Neither has ever worked outside the industry. It's what they know, and what they love. And their perseverance has paid off. What started 17 years ago with a single pushcart selling fruit along Mission has bloomed into a small empire: two San Miguel restaurants (one in Oakland), three fruit pushcarts, and the Antojitos San Miguel cart.
The family business operates on a back-breaking six-day-a-week schedule (closed Wednesdays), with most of the heavy lifting handled by the Gomezes and their three children. The younger of their two daughters is a former Marine who served in Iraq. She is finishing a degree at San Francisco State, as is their older daughter. Their son opted for the family business and is finishing culinary school. "Besides that, they all work in the restaurant," Juana says with a proud smile. "They work nights and weekends."
At 4 p.m., Justiniano arrives at the cart to relieve his wife, who will work at the restaurant all evening. He's a cheerful man with a quick smile under a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache. A boom box on the service counter plays Guatemalan music as the usual stream of evening rush hour insanity rattles by. The benches in the BART plaza are all taken. "Lots of crazy people around," he says with a deep chuckle. "But for us, it's like fun. There's always somebody to watch." It's loud and rowdy, but Justiniano seems enlivened by the boisterous vibe.
"They don't give us any trouble," Juana adds. "It's the same people here every day. They know us. They watch out for us. Plus, the police eat here all the time. They love it."
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