Taste the Legacy of La Cocina in San Francisco

In San Francisco’s Mission District, pioneers are breaking barriers and creating sustainable businesses that win awards for both food and design.

The History and Mission of La Cocina

La Cocina, “the kitchen” in Spanish, was born out of the informal food economy of the Mission District in 2005. They help chefs from immigrant and communities of color become self-sufficient culinary pioneers and launch their food businesses. The La Cocina program creates equitable opportunities so talented chefs without resources can thrive.

The two- to six-year program—like a mini-MBA for food—moves people, often women, from informal businesses into professional culinary work places. La Cocina helps them to write business plans, create menus, and formalize recipes. They lift up talented food entrepreneurs by connecting them to catering opportunities as they learn the food business and work towards realizing their dreams.

La Cocina offers participants subsidized commercial kitchen space in San Francisco's Mission District, hands-on industry-specific technical assistance, and access to market opportunities, such as catering, a stand at a farmers market, food trucks, pop-ups, or finding a restaurant space. They assist in moving packaged food products or snacks out into the community through national distribution channels as the women build equity in the community.

By supporting these women, La Cocina nurtures the food traditions that makes San Francisco so unique.

The Restaurants and Chefs from La Cocina

La Cocina has livened up the culinary scene across San Francisco with 55 graduates who have achieved operational self-sufficiency. You can dine at and support any of the 33 brick-and-mortar locations in the San Francisco region from the La Cocina program.

In San Francisco

In San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, you can dine at Heena Patel's Besharam (1275 Minnesota St.). Besharam, meaning "shameless," is a creative space to taste Indian street food. Cooking was always Patel's dream and some favorite dishes are dhokla, drunken pani puri, and dahi wada. A mural created by the Indian-Canadian artist Hatecopy frames the open kitchen at Besharam and reflects the creative spirit of San Francisco.

In the SoMa neighborhood, you can savor the flavors of Mexico at El Pipila (879 Brannan St.). Run by Guadalupe Guerrero and her two daughters, El Pipila brings the dynamic flavors of Lupe's beloved Acámbaro to San Francisco. The modern space on Brannan St. received a 2019 James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Restaurant Design. 

Head to downtown San Francisco to Onigilly (455 Market St.) and savor Koji Kanematsu's traditional Japanese rice balls with a modern twist. "Onigiri," a staple of the Japanese diet, is known for being healthy and delicious. Here you will find such customer favorites as teriyaki chicken, shiitake mushroom, salmon, and unagi, their number one seller.

Enjoy savory tastes at Bini's Kitchen (1001 Howard St.), known for their juicy Nepalese dumplings covered with a to-die-for spicy tomato cilantro sauce. Bini serves her famous MoMos, Gurkha chicken, palungo paneer, chai tea, and other Nepalese staple sat this delicious location. 

Over in the Mission, you can indulge in authentic dishes at El Buen Comer (3435 Mission St.), a family-run restaurant with a large communal table. They are known for their guisados, a homestyle dish of meats cooked in a savory green or sweet mole sauce, and were among the San Francisco Chronicle's "Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants" in 2019.

You can find La Cocina food entrepreneurs around San Francisco at Off The Grid food trucks at Fort Mason, foodwise Ferry Plaza Farmers Market at the Ferry Building, the weekend Alemany Farmers Market, the Heart of the City at United Nations Plaza, the Mission Community Market, and the Noe Valley Farmers Market. 

Beyond San Francisco

Veronica Salazar of El Huarache Loco was the first home chef to graduate from the kitchen incubator program after joining in 2005. She grew up in Mexico City and spent time in her family's restaurant. You can taste her Mexico City street food at the Marin Country Mart at Larkspur Landing and at the Alemany Farmer’s Market.

Take BART to Oakland's Fruitvale Transit Village to find talented La Cocina entrepreneurs with brick-and-mortar restaurants. Chef Reem Assil operates Reem’s California, an Arabic eatery with a California influence offering halal flatbreads, wraps, and an Arab-style weekend brunch. Reem was a James Beard Award semi-finalist and one of the San Francisco Chronicle's “Rising Star Chefs” in 2017.

Nyum Bai, by chef/owner Nite Yun, delights with her modern version of Cambodian cuisine. It was voted one of Bon Appetit’s Hot 10 Restaurants in 2018 and Nite was named to the 2018 class of the San Francisco Chronicle's "Rising Star Chefs."

A very recent La Cocina graduate is La Guerrera's Kitchen, run by the mother-daughter duo of Ofelia Barajas and Reyna Maldonado, who moved from selling tamales in the Mission District to a relaxing space with a large outdoor patio near Oakland's Fruitvale Transit Village. Try any of their excellent GMO-free tamales (chicken, pork, or zucchini), barbacoa (beef cooked in chiles), or pozole.

At her Minnie Bell's Soul Movement food stall at the Public Market in Emeryville, you can taste Fernay McPherson's favorite dishes, such as mac & cheese, fried chicken, and candied yams. McPherson, a Bay Area native, grew up around her mother's legendary Southern cooking. Fernay's cornbread was voted 2018's best by the East Bay Express and McPherson's establishment was among the 2019 "Top 100 Restaurants" chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle. McPherson herself was named a "Rising Star Chef" in 2017.

Lamees Dahbour, owner of Mama Lamees, is also at the Emeryville Public Market. Dahbour, who started selling her traditional Palestinian food at the Mission Community Market, spent five years in the La Cocina food entrepreneur program before opening her business. Along with three of her four sisters who help with the business, Lamees creates healthy favorites such as ejja (tasty fritters), manazzalet zahra (a veggie cauliflower dish in a flavorful sauce), and chicken shawarma.

The La Cocina Cookbook

"We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream” chronicles the delicious intersections of food cultures. The cookbook features cuisines from 17 countries. It is a vibrant cookbook that details more than 40 stories of the people behind the recipes. The stunning photographs are by award-winning photographer Eric Wolfinger, a cook in his own right.

The cookbook is available in San Francisco at Book Passage at the Ferry Building, Chronicle Books on Fourth St., and Alexander Book Company on Second St.

Author Brenda Tucker
Brenda Tucker

Brenda Tucker is the Director of Arts Marketing at San Francisco Travel. She has lived in San Francisco since 1998, after driving cross-country to a home she secured sight unseen. Brenda enjoys swimming out-of-doors year-round, being inspired by the incredible art scene in the City, and living in the best place on earth.