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April 1, 2015
Mission Dolores

Latino Roots: A Guide to Finding Them in San Francisco

More than 15 percent of San Francisco’s population is of Hispanic origin and whether it’s an early morning mass at Mission Dolores, the oldest building in San Francisco, or a visit to a tapas bar on Valencia Street, the city’s Latino roots run deep. 

24th Street

24th Street from Potrero to Valencia is the beating heart of the Mission District. Start out at Brava Theater Center in the old York Theater (2789 24th St.; 647-2822), home of Brava! For Women in the Arts. The theater has been transformed into a community staging area for theatrical productions.

On the next corner is St. Francis Fountain and Candy Store (2801 24th St.; 826-4200), the oldest business on the street, opened in 1918. More than an ice cream shop, it’s where the idea for the 49ers football team was hatched. And where you can still get a pretty fair shake. Roosevelt Tamale Parlor (2817 24th St.; 824-2600), opened 85 years ago, was the first Mexican restaurant on the street. Before new owners took over in 2006, only two families had owned this modest Mission District institution. The house specialty, of course, doesn’t disappoint.

After lunch, walk over to a section of the Mission where the streets reflect the neighborhood’s amusement-park past and the buildings exhibit the Latin culture’s colorful present. Two racetracks once gave the southeast quadrant of the Mission its identity. Old-timers say that two alleys in the area — 

Balmy (between Treat and Harrison, and 24th and 25th streets) and Lucky (between Folsom and Treat, and 24th and 26th streets) — were named for racehorses stabled there. Today, many of the Mission’s murals adorn these alleys.

The top spot for art in the Mission is a pair of storefronts through which the contemporary scene passes: Galería de la Raza (2857 24th St.; 826-8009). At the Galería are changing exhibitions of cutting-edge Chicano and Latino arts. The art-with-an-agenda billboard on the Bryant Street side of the building changes regularly to promote new shows at the Galería and creatively communicate with the community.

Kitty-corner is La Palma Mexicatessen (2884 24th St.; 647-1500) where you can watch nimble-handed tortilla makers pat out pudgy maize disks and grill them on an open hearth. Get some to go with the carnitas, chile rellenos or other selections from the modest takeout menu, then picnic nearby at the 24th St. Mini Park surrounded by colorful murals steeped in the Mexican heritage.

In the next block, fruit and vegetable stores and meat markets are cheek by jowl, like a mercado in Mexico. The Alabama Street intersection is dulces central. 

Discolandia (2964 24th St.; 826-9446) features CDs from major Mexican, Latino artists; much music from Peru; and packed racks of Spanish-language magazines. The rear of the store is given over to greeting cards in Spanish for every occasion.

Walls speak in the Mission. The Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center has a gallery (2981-24th St.; 285-2287) and offers regular tours of the neighborhood, one of which includes more than 75 murals along an eight-block walk.

Valencia Street and Environs

Valencia Street, one block west of Mission, is a mix of old and new. It boasts venues for visitors from various cultures, and here are some of the Latin highlights.

Mission Dolores (16th and Dolores; 621-8203), completed in 1791, is the original mission church and oldest building in San Francisco. Daily Mass there is at 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. Visitors can tour the church and adjacent cemetery.

One bookstore nearby has interesting and unusual inventories. 

Modern Times Bookstore (888 Valencia; 282-9246) specializes in Spanish-language materials, avant garde and world literature, and hard-to-find fiction, especially by women of color.

Stop in at Back to the Picture (934 Valencia; 826-2321). More than a frame shop, you can also buy prints and get information about local and international Latino artists.

Farther along Valencia is Botánica Yoruba (998 Valencia; 826-4967). For those familiar with Santería, the African-inspired religion that grew up among the slave populations of the Caribbean and Brazil, this shop may hold no surprises. But for most people, the candles, herbs, and scented oils provide a window on another world. Books and pamphlets promise lessons in casting spells and removing hexes. Oils and incense are categorized according to their purpose — to bring love or luck, to dominate, to break up, to bring luck at bingo. The candles are dedicated to madonnas such as Our Lady of the 12-Step Programs and Our Lady of Triumphant Drag Queens.

At lunchtime in the Mission, thoughts turn to burritos fat with rice, beans and the meat of your choice. 

Just off Valencia on 18th St. is the San Francisco Women’s Building (3543 18th St.; 431-1180). Seven women artists and scores of volunteers created the elaborate four-story mural on the facade of the building, which houses community service programs. The mural celebrates women and goddesses, designs and calligraphy.

Mission Street

Mission is San Francisco’s only street that runs the length of the city, changing character with each neighborhood it passes through. South beyond Division Street, it takes on its Latino accent amid the most ethnically diverse commerce in the city: Chinese fish markets, Salvadoran fruit and vegetable stores, Filipino food stands, Vietnamese groceries, Mexican jewelers, and on and on.

For Nicaraguan cuisine, try Las Tinajas Restaurant (2338 Mission; 695-9933) featuring charbroiled meats and zesty seafoods. Lunch specialties change daily and the soups satisfy.

Latin Bride (2631 Mission; 647-4200) is regarded throughout the Latin community as THE source of trappings for special occasions, religious and cultural — weddings, baby showers, baptisms, communions, compleaños. Everything is hand-made or -assembled: crystal and porcelain party favors, customized dresses, lace-covered kneeling pillows, picture perfect bouquets, ribbon-wrapped candles.

Lucky Pork Store (2659 Mission; 285-3611) offers cuts of meat not available in local supermarkets: legs of goat, blood by the pound, cow lips and every piece of the pig from snout to tail, unusual cuts for delicious ethnic meals. Across the street at 23rd and Mission Produce (2700 Mission; 285-7955) is displayed a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables with the atmosphere of a mini farmers’ market.

Between 24th and 25th streets are two bakeries that do such booming business that frequently you stand in line to be served. King’s Bakery Cafe (2846 Mission; 282-4550) offers peasant-like pastries, rolls and breads. Across the street, Dianda’s (2883 Mission; 647-5469) sells creamy-rich Italian pastries with tira misu a specialty. The nearby Mission Cultural Center (2868 Mission; 821-1155) features live performances and workshops for the community.

Across César Chávez St., into the Outer Mission District, is Lelenita’s Cakes (3743 Mission; 282-2253) with custom-made cakes for every special occasion. A highlight is tres leches cake made with three types of milk: whole, condensed and evaporated. In one of the store’s finest hours, Oct. 3, 1987, King Juan Carlos of Spain visited the city and Lelenita’s made him a huge sheet cake emblazoned with the royal crest.

Piñata Art Studio and Gallery (4268 Mission; 333-8001) is chock-full of piñatas of all sizes and types, from flying saucers to princesses, made to order as well as ready-made imported from Mexico. It also sells palos sticks, crepe paper-covered bats to break open the piñatas, and in a back room displays the art of Central American and local Latin artists. Owner Romeo Osorio says he’ll custom make any kind of a piñata, as long as he has a picture to work from.

For nighttime fun — original plays, concerts, film festivals — call the Victoria Theatre (2961 16th St.; 863-7576), the oldest operating theater in San Francisco. Or go to Roccapulco Night Club (3140 Mission; 648-6611), the biggest salsa dance club in San Francisco with hot live bands on weekends. Across the street, for Salvadoran seafood and great ambience, try Brisas de Acapulco (3137 Mission; 826-1496). Alternatively, visit the Roxie theater, which is San Francisco’s oldest running movie theater (3117 16th St., 863-1087)

Art Tour

The Mission District is largely self-contained, but some Latino cultural treasures are found elsewhere in the city. At the San Francisco Art Institute (800 Chestnut St.; 771-7020) Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural depicting the building of San Francisco is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 

Rivera’s work can also be seen near a staircase of the City Club of San Francisco (155 Sansome St.; 362-2480). Another Rivera mural decorates the Diego Rivera Theater at San Francisco City College (50 Phelan; 239-3127). Open to the public but hours vary semester to semester. Call for current schedule.

Rivera, of course, was more than a muralist, and three of his paintings are part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third St.; 357-4000): “The Flower Carrier,” “Indian Girl With Coral Necklace,” and “Kneeling Child.” The museum is closed for expansion until spring 2016.

For calendar information and local expert recommendations on all of San Francisco’s arts and cultural activities, visit www.sfarts.org which features more than 1,000 arts events in its database along with curated arts highlights and feature articles. SFArts.org is accessible on iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices. 

Explore 10 self-guided tours designed to immerse visitors in San Francisco’s culture, rich ethnic heritage and world-class art. 

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