on a mission

After spending the better part of a biting cold January day looking for an apartment in San Francisco, I found myself craving something warm and comforting. Something substantial, with protein to fuel the rest of the day’s search. And, after having realized I’m going to spend a bit more on housing than I budgeted, it needed to be cheap. This is how I found myself in the heart of the Mission, waiting in line for a burrito.

I had heard talk of the legendary Mission burrito long before my trip down here. There were tortilla comparisons and longing for slow-cooked meats. A place where even the veggie burrito was cravable. I didn’t understand it. How could meat, rice, cheese, avocado, beans and salsa be so transcendent? I think I had a mission burrito about ten years ago, and I don’t remember it as a seminal experience. I just recall making our way to an unwelcoming part of town, using my high school Spanish to the best of my ability, and falling deep into a post-burrito coma once back at the apartment.

A few days ago, when I was led on a driving tour of the city, we passed by La Taqueria on our way to find tacos. My guide dismissed the place as over-rated and gringophiled, but I wanted to see what all the buzz was about. I parked around the corner, double-checked to make sure the car was locked, and made my way down to Mission.

I knew when I walked in I had made a good choice. A long line stretched down the counter, necks craning to view the backlit menu board. The ordering process is so swift and efficient, you’ve got to have your ducks in a row before you get to the front of the line. There were murmuring of orders running down the line. “should I get the chicken, or the carnitas. Ok, you’re getting a taco, and then you wanted a quesadilla too?”

Behind the counter is an amazing display of precision Mexican food assembly. A spoon dips into salsa, distributes it evenly over three burritos. Checking tickets, chopping meat, add moving things right on down the line.

I made it to the front of the line quicker than I thought when I first walked in. I’m greeted with a quick, but warm, “Hola. Hi.” And I place my order. Marinated chicken burrito with cheese and avocado, no salsa. And cantelope agua fresca. I stake my claim near the pass and wait my turn. I don’t have to stand too long until my number, “sixty, setenta!” is called.

There’s been a hell of a cold snap bracing the city. Few are willing to sit outside, but me, fresh from the great ice-locked northwest, it doesn’t seem so bad. I grab a stool in the sun, with a great view down the line inside. And then, the first bite of the burrito. A light, doughy tortilla stretches and breaks, gives way to a burst of succulent flavor. Adobo-marinated chicken mixing with cheese and cool bites of avocado, held together by moderate layer of starchy refried beans. What surprises me most, beyond the big flavor is the moistness, the juice, the savoryness of the whole thing. This is so good. In a few minutes, I ask for the people next to me to start passing napkins, and one explains to me in halting English that he usually goes through a half-dozen per taco. Not bad.

I hop down from the stool, crumple up the foil and wax paper, place the green plastic basket on top of the trash with the rest, and walk back to my car. Satisfied, warmed, and ready to take on the next open house.


finding my way

I took off from “home” to find home, sans quotation marks. I wanted to dive right in, to experience the city firsthand. To finally sit behind the driver’s seat with nowhere to go, nothing to do. If I got lost, then I had done my job. I couldn’t tell you where I started or where I went through. I’m sure my route made no sense at all, and if someone had been tracking me, for sure would have thought I was crazy. I pushed through neighborhood after neighborhood, following on my map where I was, circling the parts that struck me as nice with a purple sharpie. Hayes Valley got a nod. Over Pacific Heights I scratched “boring?” but then when I came upon a nice collection of shops and restaurants, I drew a line through it. “no!”

I had always experienced the city with tunnel vision, destination focused. “Just tell me how to get there.” So whenever I would return, I’d have quick moments of recognition. “Jenny used to live there.” “Morgan and I had dinner there.” But then, driving around, I started to put the pieces together as a whole. I was amazed to find out, it’s not as big as it seems, but it still seems infinite. There seems like there are a thousand things to discover. When anyone begins to describe a favorite place, it usually starts with the adjectives “great” and “little” in quick succession. Living here might just be a veritable treasure hunt, replete with hand-drawn maps where X marks the spot.

I found such a gem on my first day, though to be honest, Noneifbysea had done some research to get me there. Ritual Roasters is a little slice of Portland, right in the heart of the Mission. They’re doing coffee Portland-style, with Stumptown beans, in fact. I walk in, and they’re playing Tapes n’ Tapes, the album I had recently tapped as my Moving to San Francisco soundtrack. It seemed to perfect. It was. I asked after their whole bean coffee, to see if they had Columbia La Virgina specifically. They didn’t, but then the guy behind the counter (who had just moved from Portland himself) recommended the Limu. Funny thing. Limu had been recommended to NIBS and I. Twice. And we bought it. Twice. And both times, we hated it. I couldn’t believe the scene was unfolding a third time. I had them grind up a half-pound of Kenya to take home.

I grabbed a cup of drip and a blackout cupcake topped with a pastel dollop of lavender frosting. It was astounding. Chocolate, lavender, the coffee, tapes n’ tapes, a whole room of Portland hipster doppelgangers, tucked behind laptops, strangers sharing tables meant for friends. I had entered a displaced Portland Coffee-obsessed yupster paradise. I wasn’t home, but I was closing in.

I got back in the car and continued to wind my way around the city for a couple more hours. Finding dead-ends and alternate routes, climbing hills for the fun and sheer terror, apologizing to my car’s transmission over and over again. I have my ipod on shuffle, and every song that comes up seems just right. A josh rouse song I haven’t heard in years. A smattering of Ella. A lot of Costello. I sing. I drive. I get excited about being here.

Finding my way with surprising ease back to the Bay Bridge, I feel my heart surge in a way I hadn’t expected. I took a deep breath, and I couldn’t contain my smile. It was the same way I’d felt that night I met Noneifbysea. A little nervous. A little excited. On my way to falling in love.