BY: Christopher Forsley
I love San Francisco, its people and its places, both from the past and the present. Jerry Garcia, Laffing Sal, Andre Nickatina, Harvey Milk, Frank Chu, John Waters, Fillmore Slim, Bruce Lee, S. Clay Wilson, Willie Mayes, Emperor Norton, Tim Lincecum, Janis Joplin, The Gonz, Robin Williams -- I love them all. I love them like I love Chinatown, McCovy Cove, Booksmith, Last Gasp, DELUXE, Sutro Baths, Delirium, Fort Funston, Castro Theater, Hippie Hill, Kayo Books, Musee Mecanique, Muddy Water's, Clarion Alley, and Little Shamrock.
But it is San Francisco's writers, who attracted me here, and its taquerias, which keep me here, that I love best. No other American city besides New York -- which is unlivable due to its pigs, pollution, and pinstripes -- can boast of a literary tradition and a food culture that are both historically enriching and contemporarily bitching. And this boasting, if you ask me, is only possible because of San Francisco's word-wielders and tortilla-tossers.
The two, I admit, seem to have little in common with each other. While the products that San Francisco's writers produce are consumed intellectually, the products that its taquerias produce are consumed physically. The writers explain shit, but the taquerias create shit. One favors English and the college-class, the other favors Spanish and the working-class. And although they both uphold the city's liberal conventions, the writers do so through their opinions whereas the taquerias do so through their portions.
But they have more common than you know. Their products are affordable and, in both cases, go down better with beer. They also, in addition to helping you get to sleep, come in a disguise -- with a book cover and a tinfoil wrap -- that makes their glorious insides a surprise. They both face technological threats: for the writer it's the internet and e-books, and for the taqueria it's the microwave and frozen burritos. And they each offer their ingredients in different forms. Writers, for example, use their words to form essays, poems, novels, scripts, plays, and short-stories. Taquerias, on the other hand, use their fillings to form tacos, enchiladas, burritos, nachos, quesadillas, and tamales.
These similarities are not a coincidence, rather they are proof of their boundless bond. This bond between San Francisco's writers and taquerias is so strong that you could, based on their individual characteristics, pair every great San Francisco writer with every great San Francisco taqueria. . . well, maybe you couldn't pair them, but I certainly could. And I will do just that so you, San Franciscans, can make more informed decisions about your books and burritos, essays and enchiladas.
I'll start by pairing the first San Francisco writer I ever read, Jack London, with the first San Francisco taqueria I ever ate at, Taqueria Cancun. Neither offer anything extraordinary, but they both offer consistent creations at accessible locations. London, a San Francisco native, wrote two adventure novels, Call of the Wild and White Fang, that, because of their potent plots and simple symbolism, have been taught by teachers and scanned by students for over a hundred years and can now be found in every bookstore and library under every section from 'teens' and 'classics' to 'animals' and 'sports'. And Cancun, with its properly folded rather than haphazardly rolled burritos and its rational ratio of fillings that include the oh-so-rare whole sliced avocado, is so solid that I'd use any of its three locations as an earthquake shelter -- especially since their jammin' jukeboxes and free ice-water allows one to hydrate with Mariachi music.
Contrasting the consistency and accessibility of London and Cancun is the individuality and extremity of Richard Brautigan and La Taqueria. Both Brautigan's nearly non-existent narrative in Trout Fishing in America and La Taqueria's refusal to put rice in their burritos break the rules that every other San Francisco writer and taqueria follows. Although their excessive nature -- obvious in Brautigan's repetition and La Taqueria's prices -- alienate many San Francisco readers and eaters, they each have a small but fierce army of devotees. Enemies of this army don't understand that Brautigan and La Taqueria can only be fairly judged as a whole. If you take one abstract sentence or one rice-less bite alone, you won't get it. You have to read Brautigan's entire novel, eat La Taqueria's entire burrito, and let them digest. Only then will you realize their greatness.
About Brautigan, Lawrence Farlighetti, San Francisco's first Poet Laureate, said "he was much more in tune with the trout in America than with people." And about La Taqueria, the friendly faces at El Farolito would probably say something similar -- if they weren't so busy serving their people. Farlighetti and El Farolito put their people on a pedestal. Farlighetti -- by opening City Lights Bookstore, publishing Allen Ginsberg's HOWL, and winning a defining obscenity trial -- exposed the world to San Francisco's writers. And El Farolito -- because it stays open until 3:30AM, is located next to the 24th St. BART station, and serves up the greasiest and tastiest super suiza quesadilla in the city -- exposed the world to San Francisco's taquerias. . . that might be an exaggeration, but it did save many drunken hipsters from many bad barhopping hangovers. Then, the next morning, they used their fancy phones to expose the world to San Francisco's taquerias. Farlighetti's poems, like Farolito's quesadillas, are so good that their essence will soak into your brain and body so deep that you'll dream about them for a week.
But if Farlighetti and Farolito exposed San Francisco writers and taquerias to the world, then Amy Tan and Papalote made the world embrace them. Although San Francisco writers and taquerias have always been embraced, it wasn't until Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club and Papalote won Bobby Flay's 'Burrito-Off' on the Food Network that they were embraced on a massive scale. While London is embraced by educators, Braughtigan by the counter-culture, and Farlighetti by poets, and while Cancun is embraced by avocado aficionados, La Taqueria by protein fiends, and El Farolito by bar-crawlers, only Tan is embraced by both academic scholars and Hollywood producers and only Papalote is embraced by both condiment connoisseurs and television personalities. But don't let their mainstream success fool you. Tan offers the most unique perspective -- she's a daughter of a Chinese immigrant mother -- out of every San Francisco writer, and Papalote offers the most unique salsa -- it's smooth, smokey, and rich -- out of every San Francisco taqueria.
Although not the house-hold names that Tan and Papalote are, Daniel Handler and Gordo Taqueria are equally indispensable parts of San Francisco's literary tradition and food culture. . . for a particular portion of the population: children and child-like adults in the case of Handler, and residents of the Richmond and Sunset districts in the case of Gordo. In fact, for the individuals who make up those particular portions of San Francisco's population, Handler -- aka Lemony Snicket -- and Gordo are not only house-hold names but are the only names. Handler is the greatest children's author San Francisco has ever had, and Gordo is the greatest San Francisco taqueria that The Avenues have ever had. They both cater to their clientele with cleanliness, and because neither has any competition, they each get a crown.
Handler and Gordo are San Francisco kings, no doubt, but only the kiddies and the Avenueites are loyal to them. San Francisco is changing, and it is Michelle Tea, the queer queen of lit, and The Little Chihuahua, the fusion friendly taqueria, that best represents this change. Because of Tea's spellbinding spoken-word and autobiographical novel, Valencia, and The Little Chihuahua's sustainable meats and outlandish vegetarian options, together they are leading San Francisco's writers and taquerias into the 21st century. Although their products are sometimes unconvincing, Tea's stylized syntax and Little Chihuahua's super salsa-bar always win me over in the end. Reading Tea and eating Little Chihuahua is fun. It's the kind of fun a straight gringo from Middle America has when partying at a Latin club in the Castro. The experience might not be authentic, but it sure is memorable.
If you're looking for a more authentic San Francisco writer and taqueria combination, I'd suggest grabbing Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon and heading over to Taqueria Castillo for some lengua in whatever form you fancy. After reading about Tea's drug-fueled lesbian exploits and eating Little Chihuahua's organic green tortillas, I always have a desire to get back to the basics. And no San Francisco writer or taqueria is more basic than Hammett and Castillo. Holding down the Tenderloin, San Francisco's grittiest and storied neighborhood, neither Hammett nor Castillo rely on gimmicks. Their writing and meat speak for themselves. They say, in the voice of Sam Spade, "You'll take it and like it." And it's true. Hammett and Castillo never fail to fill me up with delicious violence and old-school flavor.
Acting in direct opposition to the simplicity of Hammett and Castillo is the fragmented, stream-of-consciousness, periodically poetic prose of Jack Kerouac and the unpredictable, always wet, sometimes succulent selections at Taqueria San Jose. Taken together, they're a pair on par with Bonnie and Clyde, Abbott and Costello, Ren & Stimpy. . . salt and pepper, apples and oranges, pepperonis and pizza. But both Kerouac and San Jose, due to the moisture in their make-up, are required tastes. Some will eagerly lick up the juice that rolls off the tongue while reading Kerouac and down the arm while eating at San Jose, but others will curse it for distracting from the story and for making the tortillas soggy. No one, however, can deny the impact Kerouac's Great American Novel, On The Road, and San Jose's persistent presence on Mission St has had on the evolution of San Francisco's writers and taquerias. In fact, only The Godfathers are more influential.
Mark Twain is The Godfather of American Literature, and Taqueria La Cumbre is The Godfather of the Mission Burrito. Twain came to San Francisco as Samuel Clemens, but after getting fired from the Daily Morning Call and writing the first uniquely American story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," he became Mark Twain who, to this day, embodies the benchmark to which every San Francisco writer is measured. And La Cumbre came to San Francisco as a meat market, but after moving to its location on 16th and Valencia and selling the first Mission-style burrito on 29 September 1969, it became La Cumbre which, to this day, sets the standard to which every San Francisco taqueria is compared. Twain's dialogue is so tasty and his wit so sharp that it can only be complemented by a La Cumbre burrito stuffed with the tastiest of chicken breasts cut to pieces with the sharpest of knifes. If I had to choose one novel to read and one burrito to eat for the rest of my life, I'd choose Twain's Huckleberry Finn and La Cumbre's pollo asado burrito.
But if I had to choose one novel not to read and one burrito not to eat for the rest of my life, I'd choose Danielle Steel's latest and that wet sock served at Shitpotle. . . I mean Chipotle. Both Steele and Chipotle are corporate-created leeches that suck the magic pumping through the veins of San Francisco's writers and taquerias and then corrupt it for an easy profit. Owning some of the best real-estate in the city does not make Steel a San Francisco writer and Chipotle a San Francisco taqueria. Their products, which are written by ghostwriters and made by high-schoolers, are cheap imitations of the real deal and should be avoided at all costs -- especially since the costs for their slop are higher than you'd have to be to enjoy it.
Bridging the gap between the cheap imitations and the real deal is Dave Eggers and Pancho Villas. I'm not saying their creations are between cheap imitations and the real deal. I'm saying those who consume their creations are too smart to read and eat cheap imitations but too skittish to read and eat the real deal, so they read Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and eat Pancho Villas's tofu tacos. From my observations, they want the Believer to guide their reading and a security guard to guide their eating. They, however, refuse to read The Circle and eat al pastor, which is a shame. It's a shame because with that book and that meat Eggers and Pancho Villas offer a dystopian vision, a vision warning of the tech companies and the trendy bistros that are driving both San Francisco's writers and taquerias out of the city and killing the literary tradition and food culture that I love so much.
Illustration by Cameron Forsley