The wall behind the bar is covered with old rock ’n’ roll posters, photo-strip collages, and shelves cluttered with bottles and knickknacks. After about 10 seats’ worth of bar, the wall to the right ends and the entire space opens up. Three steps go up to a second floor with a couple pool tables, a pinball machine, and a photo booth. Beyond that, Bender’s has what no San Francisco dive bar would be complete without: a dirty little smoking patio. After you pass the bar and before you step up to the mezzanine, if you curl around to the right, you’ll find the grill. It’s a tiny open kitchen with a couple guys working their butts off to keep the drunks fed. The menu has bar favorites like wings, burgers, tater tots, and — what I’m here for — tacos.
I know what you’re thinking. Why would I go to a bar for tacos when there are so many great taquerias elsewhere in the Mission? It’s because these tacos are special. They’re Mom’s tacos. You see, growing up on the East Coast in an Irish-Italian family, taco night was a buffet of Old El Paso shells, ground beef flavored with powdered seasoning, Kraft “Mexican” Cheddar Jack, mango salsa, sour cream, chopped iceberg, tomatoes, and black olives. (How the olives weaseled their way into that fiesta, time and again, I still don’t understand.)
It wasn’t until moving out West until I truly felt the magic of an amazing street taco, a real taco. Bender’s crispy tacos are admittedly tastier and not identical to Mom’s infamous rendition, but the similarities ignite a nostalgic spark that brings me right back home.
The tortillas are deep-fried to order, hardening into little bubbly boat shapes with wavy edges. At $3.75 apiece, you can choose ground beef, chicken, fish, veggie, and “crema” poblana, all with their own specific toppings. I go for the chicken and beef, mainly because putting fish in a taco as a kid would have been like putting ketchup on my pancakes. The tender ground beef comes with that familiar medley of unmelted yellow-and-white shredded cheese — but unlike Mom’s powdered protein, this beef has a sweetness and is accompanied by tart, crunchy homemade pickles. The crispy chicken, also topped with shredded cheese, is dripping with whatever mildly spicy sauce the meat was soaking in. Garnished with the ribbons of romaine and salsa, this taco is reminiscent of a mini tortilla bowl. As delicious as the chicken taco is, the beef wins. It’s just what Mom would’ve wanted.
If you’re seeking a blast from the past, you must go to Bender’s and try these tacos. The combination of flavors and textures remind me so much of taco night back east that I can’t help but wonder if this what Mom was attempting to accomplish all along. Are these delectable little bar snacks the taco that Mother had envisioned before embarking on her Mexican culinary voyage? Probably not, but I like to think that they are.
Bender’s Bar & Grill, 806 South Van Ness Ave., 415-824-1800 or bendersbar.com