San Francisco’s Mission District is known for its historical murals – the highest concentration of them in the country – and more recently, a growth spurt in restaurants, coffee shops and specialty food spots. Rather than walk around aimlessly trying to find the best spots to eat and gaze at brightly colored walls, check out Avital Tours, an opportunity to see the art and food of the Mission.
I recently had the chance to join owner Avital Ungar (pictured above) on a Saturday morning tour. The group met in front of the Women’s Building and enjoyed a quick round of introductions before starting out on the three-hour tour. As Avital explains, her tour allows everyone to, “Experience the Mission through our bellies and our eyes.” Avital–who studied art history, French and Mandarin at UCLA, spent time studying art and food in France and China, and is currently pursuing a sommelier license–is a Bay Area native who is an absolute pleasure as a tour guide: she KNOWS her food, her art, and her San Francisco history. And her natural bubbliness gives Dom Perignon a run for its money.
The tour began with Hog and Rocks, San Francisco’s first (and only) ham and oyster bar owned by Scott Youkilis. Our group of six sat at the center table and had the privilege of meeting Scott while enjoying Miyagi oysters and prosciutto-style ham. Scott shared a story of a guy who ate six dozen oysters once; Scott offered to pay the bill if he’d eat another dozen, but the guy couldn’t do it. As the only oyster-virgin at the table, I even got a lesson in proper oyster consumption from Scott. The verdict? Not my favorite seafood, but I’d eat them again. Scott also shared with us that his third restaurant, Hi-Lo BBQ, will be coming in June.
Next we went to Mission Cheese. The “mission” in the title refers to the mission of cheese; the fact it shares the name with the neighborhood is ironic. Sarah Dvorak, who had been a cheese monger at Jardiniere and also teaches at SF Cheese School, runs Mission Cheese. She offered tastings of landaff and carabiner cheeses and talked about her favorites: “definitely the stinky cheeses, because they’re more unique.” We also visited during construction; Mission Cheese will soon have what Sarah calls “the only cheese garden in the city.” Cheese garden = outdoor patio. When someone asked the all-popular “so, which wine do you prefer with cheese?” question, Sarah actually said that she suggests beer or sparkling wine as red wine can be overpowering. I’ll take that as an excuse to pair Humboldt fog with champagne any day.
After a walk through Clarion Alley, we arrived at Venga Empanadas. We walked straight to the kitchen to meet owner Manuel Godino, who was born in Spain but spent most of his life in Argentina before coming to the U.S. Three cooks at Venga will make 400 to 500 baked empanadas by hand every day. How did Manuel decide on empanadas? Quite simply: “no one was making them in SF.” Manuel popped a batch of freshly made beef and spinach empanadas into the oven and three minutes later, we got to do some major taste-testing. (I have since found myself venturing out to the Mission just to grab a few empanadas.)
With all this eating, it was time to do a little drinking, so we went to Four Barrel coffee. Alex, one of the staffers at Four Barrel, took us through three different roasts and shared some information on Four Barrel. For example, did you know that 100% of their coffee is roasted in house but only 15% is sold at the café? And their buyers travel several times a year to Guatemala, Peru, Costa Rica and other locations to meet with the farmer directly and select the absolute best coffee. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to stop for a full-size cup, but I learned that a second Four Barrel location will be opening on Divisadero later this year (near Nopa).
Lastly, we ended the tour on a sweet note with ice-cream sandwiches from Bi-Rite Creamery. On nice days, Avital takes the tour into Dolores Park to enjoy the views of the Financial District between bites. Over the three hours, we walked just about a mile and stopped by some of the most popular Mission spots. Avital also highlighted some other must-eat places, including Mission Beach Café, Tartine Bakery and flour + water; we all got postcards with the recommendations for later.
I ended the tour with a healthier appreciation for the art and food of the Mission. I’m looking forward to coming back to explore more of the ever-changing murals while snacking on cheese from Mission Cheese and bread from Tartine Bakery. Or maybe I’ll just go with another ice-cream sandwich.
Avital’s tours are available Tuesday nights at 6pm and Saturday mornings at 11am. Tickets are $64 or $80 with alcohol pairing. Group tours and corporate engagements are also available. The tours meet in front of the Women’s Building on 18th Street between Valencia and Guerrero.
Photo credit: Adam Shapiro