When Lucca’s Ravioli closed its doors in the Mission one last time in April, San Francisco bemoaned the loss of another institution. Where else in the city is there a specialty shop full of imported cheeses, wine, pasta, and more? Noe Valley’s 24th Street Cheese Co. is there to absorb the demand.
On 24th and Sanchez streets, just a couple blocks from the J-Church line, the boutique holds roughly 300 cheeses that challenge you to think beyond Kraft singles in the aisles of Safeway. Oveja Negra? Aged sheep’s milk. Pont L’Eveque? Comes from coastal French cow and has notes of shellfish. Beemster? Aged Gouda that has toffee notes and a caramel finish.
If those names sound daunting, owner Charles Kung knows the feeling. His family, which came from China via Taiwan then Argentina, didn’t know the first thing about fancy cheeses when they got into the business. Thirty-three years later, people go to Kung and his small staff for recommendations on cheese, wine, and even escargot.
“It’s kind of an accident,” Kung says. “Sometimes, you never know.”
Kung’s family landed in Argentina in 1964 when he was around 14 years old from Taiwan, where his family retreated to avoid communist rule on the mainland of China. The United States was difficult to get into but Kung’s mother had a childhood friend in Buenos Aires who attested to the ability to earn a living there.
While his parents launched a restaurant in the city and later a shipping company, a tutor taught Kung and his sister Spanish — but also didn’t know English so they often communicated by looking up words in the dictionary. Just three years later in 1967, his sister started attending school at San Francisco State University — right before students mounted a historic strike to create the College of Ethnic Studies — and later started waitressing at the former Andy’s Donuts on Castro Street.
That provided Kung’s family with the ability to move to San Francisco. Kung spent his first summer there in 1969 before studying political science in Texas.
“It was, of course, a different San Francisco,” Kung says. “I would say it was more multicultural. I was comfortable here. Then, it’s more comfortable than now.”
Kung’s mother started buying up buildings, including one on 24th Street with a cheese shop in poor condition 38 years ago. Staff members later convinced the Kungs to take over the shop despite not knowing much about cheese. Kung had moved back and forth from Buenos Aires while waiting for his green card and by 1986, about one year after his sister started running the store, he was able to settle in for good, with books on cheeses in hand.
“They had nothing at all and I had to establish everything,” Kung says. “I trusted my own palate. It took a couple years for me to get the whole thing.”
Though Kung doesn’t eat as much cheese as he did in the past, he’s now confident enough in his expertise to say he likes sheep’s milk from the Basque region of France. He and his wife raised his two daughters upstairs from the cheese shop before they left for college on the East Coast and remained there. But Kung and his wife still live in the building, and have seen a noticeable change in clientele over the years.
“A majority of the high-tech people today have more money to spend so they don’t really care how much we charge,” Kung says. “In the old days people always asked, ‘How much does this one cost?’ Today, it’s easier to sell more higher, artisanal cheeses. Many of them are willing to pay for that.”
The older generation of Noe Valley that’s still around tends to care more about calories now and eat less cheese, Kung says. But the store also comes stocked with imported meats, wines, sauces, and, yes, some Italian pasta.
It’s no secret what’s kept Kung’s shop insulated from San Francisco’s skyrocketing rents: ownership of the building. Though Kung has a few employees to help, he has retirement on his 70-year-old mind.
Kung says the day will come that he sells the business and calls it a day. Once that happens, San Francisco will have one less stop for Harvarti Dill, D’affinois Truffle, Taleggio, and other cheeses to front like an expert during social gatherings.
But that day isn’t here yet — at least until long-standing Noe Valley neighbors are no longer here to beg him to delay retirement.
“Nothing is going to be forever,” Kung says. “I’m still here.”