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After my snack at La Taqueria, I walk back down Mission, past numberless dry-goods stores selling bright, cheap merchandise and the art deco marquees of vanished movie palaces, mourning the days when the neighborhood could support several big screens, to Taqueria Can-Cun, a smaller, more colorful place than La Taqueria, hung with intricately cut-out plastic flags and lined with hot tropical murals. Inspired by the stacks of beautiful avocados, I ask to have some added to my al pastor taco -- thick, luscious, perfectly ripe slices laid across the well-spiced, moist chunks of pork. (Chips and cups of two fresh salsas come with my $2.50 taco.) I'm not surprised that the walls are covered with framed "Best Of" testimonials from half a dozen publications -- including SF Weekly.
I try to pace myself, wanting to check out a couple more places, but the succulence of the carnitas at La Taqueria and the cumin-scented al pastor at Can-Cun win out over abstinence. I walk up to Valencia, hoping that some brisk window-shopping will restore my appetite. When I enter Den, a furniture store, I see two employees enjoying big, fat, beany burritos -- a meal, they tell me, purchased a few blocks away at Taqueria El Toro. I'm working my way toward La Cumbre, so I make a stop at El Toro to check it out. It's a blindingly clean corner spot, which my roommate Cathy, who used to live in the Mission, has already told me is related to Taqueria Pancho Villa, the favorite of Calvin Trillin's friend Ed. I'm a little shocked to see that it proudly advertises "No Lard" right under "Authentic Freshly Made Mexican Food," something of a contradiction in my book. (If you're going for the pig, why not celebrate all of it?)
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
La Taqueria carnitas taco $2.75
Taqueria Can-Cun al pastor taco with avocado $2.30
Taqueria Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa coctel de camarones $6.95
Pancho Villa red snapper taco $2.35
Pancho Villa carne asada taco $1.85
Pancho Villa watermelon agua fresca $1.95
Pancho Villa alfajor 80 cents
La Taqueria, 2889 Mission (at 25th Street), 285-7117. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 49. Noise level: high.
Taqueria Can-Cun, 2288 Mission (at 19th Street), 252-9560. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 49. Noise level: high.
Taqueria Pancho Villa, 3071 16th St. (at Valencia), 864-8840. Open daily from 10 a.m. to midnight. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 26, 22. Noise level: high.
I continue my walk, browsing at Forest Books on 16th Street and the Abandoned Planet bookstore on Valencia, inevitably adding a few tomes to my satchel. Taqueria La Cumbre is even cuter than I remember it, pleasantly comfy and dimly lit after the bustling La Taqueria and icy-clean El Toro. But I'm not ready to re-enter the eating fray; I decide to return to La Cumbre for dinner, after the night's entertainment, when I'll also try Pancho Villa, right around the corner.
I'm on my way to Cafe Du Nord to see an evening of restaurant stories titled "Kitchen Confidential," produced by Porch Light. I get there more than an hour before the scheduled start time of 7, thinking, because of the Cafe in the name, that I could obtain a cup of same, sit at a table, and read. But the door to the subterranean space is padlocked, and I share my grumpiness with a girl who, it turns out, has been shivering on the sidewalk for 45 minutes. Judy and I, and eventually her sister Amy, are joined in solidarity on the waiting list. We get in and are treated to an amiable if slightly less than shapely evening of reminiscences, which (surprise!) leaves us hungry. The girls are willing to join me for a taco or three; alas, La Cumbre has just closed for the night, at 9 (I'm happy I snagged my free calendar featuring the La Cumbre girl that afternoon). So we join the line at the enormous, lofty, refrigerator-white Pancho Villa, whose own excellent graphic features a mildly Arcimboldo-esque bandido with chile-pepper eyebrows and mustachio.
It has the largest menu of any of the places I've visited, sliding from taqueria almost into restaurant status. Among us we make short work of a soupy coctel de camarones (I prefer its cubes of ripe avocado to the big, firm, pink shrimp), a freshly fried red snapper taco, a massive but slightly dull quesadilla stuffed with chile verde chicken (an ingredient I'd like better unobscured with bland cheese), and a very tasty carne asada taco, washed down with a superb fresh watermelon agua fresca. We love the lavish salsa bar, which features whole radishes and cut-up limes as well as an array of half a dozen salsas. Despite the harsh light, we -- well, we don't linger, exactly, but we pause long enough for a couple of alfajor cookies, powdery discs joined by a smear of caramel.
I'll hit La Cumbre and San Jose #2 next time.
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