As we have written in the past, Howard Street is remarkable for having very little on it that’s remarkable. There are several exceptions — Cellarmaker, Tank18, Tin — but considering its relative location and length, it’s mostly the street you pass by on your way elsewhere. Well, as local super-historian Burrito Justice has informed us, South Van Ness used to be an extension of Howard Street, but its residents voted early in the last century to change the name for greater cachet. (Seriously.)
The descriptor “proudly ungentrifiable” has a certain be-careful-what-you-wish-for element to it, but in 10 years or more, very little on South Van Ness has changed. A sort of sub-expressway, it looks and feels like Cesar Chavez Street did before its years-long refurbishment. While Church, Dolores, Guerrero, Valencia, Mission, and Folsom streets all have strong personalities, Van Ness is more of a negative space with a couple of dives (Bender’s, The Napper Tandy) and Urban Putt, plus the gas station that serves Krispy Krunchy Chicken. I love the quirky, meaty Walzwerk and the family-owned San Jalisco as much as anyone, but by rights, Van Ness ought to see more action than it does. The street is a Nextdoor power-user’s nightmare.
Maybe that’s why the gorgeously anachronistic drive-through Whiz Burger — a site of queer history, as it was the spot where a June 1977 homophobic encounter led to the murder of a city gardener only a few days before Pride, galvanizing S.F.’s LGBTQ community — has lasted so long. And maybe it’s why Los Yaquis is one of the most underrated and under-written about restaurants in the entire Mission.
It’s right there, next to an Audi dealership and across from the deli whose facade featured so prominently in Woody Allen’s Streetcar ripoff, Blue Jasmine. But it feels like a secret.
Like Many Mexican places below Cosme, newly crowned the best restaurant in the U.S., Los Yaquis has a perceptible party vibe. “Michelada” is already a combination of “mi,” “chela,” and “helada” — which renders as “my cold beer” — but Los Yaquis expands the definition of that quintessential summer-afternoon drink much farther. Here, you can get a truly gigantic michelada with six shrimp balancing like gargoyles over the Tajin-covered rim. Order it with a Negra Modelo and you’ll be told with a smile that that was the right choice. It’s kapow-flavored all the way down.
But Los Yaquis is so much more than a come-in-and-get-drunk atmosphere. It’s honestly a little strange, combining traits of high and low. On a recent Monday, a workman was painting the entranceway — during dinner. Did anybody mind? No. Did the cheerfully server seat a party of eight that walked in exactly one minute after the posted 9:30 p.m. end of service? Yes. Are the bathrooms gender-neutral? Yes. Do they necessarily have a mirror? No. And beyond the staff or the rainbow-striped icing on the cookies in the case, Los Yaquis possesses that ineffable quality that most queer-identified or -affiliated people’s social antannae know to look out for, that thing that says, “Everything will be fine, and you will enjoy it here.” No need to pander with hashtags like #UnlimitedPride.
The food is unlike anything else in the Mission, full stop. Parsing the hundred-item menu may take time, but above all, do not be deterred by prices at or around the $30 mark. They’re almost certain to be enormous, more platter than plate. Take a pescado bañado en mariscos, a tilapia smothered in shellfish. It’s a whole-roasted fish, for one, curled around a langoustine with a single segmented leg embracing it, all encircling a tower of seafood that would almost look vulgar if not for everything else: the angle of the langoustine, the fire of the sauce, the pyramid of rice, and the edible orchid. It’s all there, among baby octopuses, shrimp, imitation crab meat with its giveaway fish-cake texture — on an 18-inch, rectangular dish. Attentiveness runs high. Someone will bring the food, check on you, offer various types of silverware that may be of use, then bring limes, then more food. You’re not being served; you’re being pampered. And the tortillas are house-made.
Another tilapia filet, coated in so much minced garlic that it might be mistaken for panko, also brings out the parenting instinct. It’s served over fries, so you get ketchup, and next to a salad, so you get Thousand Island. Then a tiny ramekin arrives, full of shredded habaneros whose colorlessness belies their intensity. You’ve had no warning that the dishes were this big, and no warning that you’ll be getting two congratulatory shots of tequila that taste as sweet as a spring-break shooter after all that habanero. It’s almost 10 p.m. on a Monday. Cheers!
For lunch, a botana mixta blends tomatoes, nopales, pig feet, slices of pig skin, and a few quail eggs. If you want to stay in a Cal-Mex comfort zone, go with beef chilaquiles whose chips rest at that perfect spot where they’re crunchy and soggy at the same time; the beans are spicy and best used to line more tortillas. At the same time, if all you want is to chill over a margarita with some chips and guac, Los Yaquis isn’t going to turn you away. There are, thankfully, no TVs.
Ancestrally residing in the southern region of the Mexican border state of Sonora, the Yaqui are warriors who never fully acculturated to Catholicism and European rule. Their existence is a reminder of the diversity of the Mission’s Mexican-American community, many thousands of whom speak neither English nor Spanish but indigenous languages. And quasi-hidden Los Yaquis is a testament to just how varied and how wonderful the neighborhood’s Mexican food can be.
Los Yaquis, 324 South Van Ness Ave., 415-252-8204 or los-yaquis.com