Anyone who has read this blog a few times knows I’ve had a very long love affair with Mexico and Mexican food.
When I first moved to California back in 2001, I fell hard for the culture that was everywhere in my diverse Los Angeles community. Since that time, Mexico has been the one foreign country I’ve traveled around the most. I’ve even called it my favorite country in the world. So when I was invited to do a Mexican food tour up in San Francisco, I gladly jumped on board.
Better still, the tour was led by one of my food and travel inspirations, Chef Rick Bayless from the long-running PBS cooking show, Mexico One Plate at a Time. His coverage of the growing Baja California food community inspired my recent trip to Baja’s wine country, and we visited his restaurant, Topolobampo when we visited Chicago last spring… I was SO EXCITED to meet him!
The event was organized by Negra Modelo Beer, as part of a campaign to encourage thoughtful beer pairing with good food, something I definitely support. They invited a bunch of Bay Area food bloggers to explore San Francisco’s Mission District with Chef Bayless.
“The Mission,” as the neighborhood is called, has long been a center of Mexican-American culture in San Francisco. Though the city (and this neighborhood!) have changed a lot as rents have skyrocketed, there are still several long-standing local businesses sharing the culture of the community. The streets of the Mission are marked by beautiful, sometimes political, and often cultural, street art, including this painting of the much-loved Mexican saint, The Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Mission is also a great neighborhood for culinary explorers, and an area I always recommend first-time visitors to San Francisco check out. We spent half of our very first San Francisco SweetsCrawl eating our way through the local food businesses. But on this culinary tour of San Francisco, I learned about several new spots.
Exploring Mexican Food in the Mission
Our first stop on Chef Bayless’ food tour, was a Mexican tortillaria and huaracheria–a local shop that makes fresh corn tortillas and flat, sandal-shaped “huaraches.” They also make tamales, a seasonal treat, and prepare fresh corn masa to order, for locals to take home. They grind the corn by hand and use no preservatives. As Bayless told us poetically, corn products like these are, “the canvas on which Mexican food has to be painted.”
(Photo courtesy of Negra Modelo)
After this, we stopped in to meet local butcher, Salvador Vazquez, who opened his family-run meat market way back in 1965. He shared stories from his long history in the community and his passion for his products really caught my attention. “Flat meat,” a cut of beef common in Mexico, is one such offering he personally popularized here in the United States. He still does all of the meat cutting (or “breaking,” as he unsettlingly called it) right there inside his small shop. You can’t get fresher meat in San Francisco.
Our last stop in the Mission was La Reyna Panaderia, a Mexican baker that creates 25 different traditional pastries fresh, each day.
The owner, a young man named Sal, is a third generation baker at this shop. His favorites include the bread pudding, the homemade custard empanadas, and their new additions to the menu–homemade fruit popsicles, called paletas. He shared a loving memory about their traditional “Day of the Dead” bread, made each year on the holiday, November 2. His grandfather passed away 20 years ago on that date, and the Day of the Dead bread was the last thing he baked. Each year they honor his grandfather with that first loaf of bread.
These are the kinds of stories you don’t get in big box shops.
At this point, I FINALLY got up the nerve to ask Chef Bayless for a photo, and despite the difficult lighting in the bakery, I was thrilled to get this shot!
After the bakery, we piled into (what else!) a replica San Francisco trolley car, to cross the city to our final stop. A restaurant in the SOMA neighborhood, where Chef Bayless would be giving a talk.
This final event was pulled on by the Negra Modelo team, and their beer was available on tap. After all this talk about the company, I was eager to finally drink a glass! For as long as I’ve known Negra Modelo, it has been my favorite big brand Mexican beer.
Negra Modelo has been brewed in Mexico since 1925, part of the German brewing tradition that spread around the world in the early 20th century. Negra Modelo is much different than the light Mexican lagers you may be familiar with. It’s dark and malty, and more complex than those other light beers–the name means “dark Modelo” (the dark beer, of the Modelo brand).
With beer in hand, I sat down to listen to Chef Bayless share his thoughts about Mexican cooking and tips for buying and preparing key ingredients. Here are a few of his thoughts:
- Avocados: “Always buy them from a Mexican grocer”–this is because Mexican grocers know how to pick them and they know how to handle them. Because of high turnover, they often have ripe avocados that are ready to use that same day.
- Importance of chiles in Mexican cuisine: Mexico eats more varieties of chile than anywhere else in the world and all of them have very distinctive flavor profiles. Mexican chefs consider “Flavor first! Then the heat”, which is very different than the way we are used to thinking about chiles in the US.
- Chile misconceptions: While most people think that it’s the seeds that are responsible for the heat, most of the chile’s heat is in the white veins. The flesh doesn’t have much heat.
- A classic spicy salsa recipe: Roast tomatillos, roast garlic, toast dried arbol chiles, blend, add a touch of salt and maybe some vinegar to taste. That’s it!
- Guacamole: The only ingredients you need are avocado, salt, and a little lime. “Don’t go overboard on the lime!”
- Onions: In dishes that call for raw onions (i.e. taco garnish, guacamole, salsa)–only use white onions. Never use yellow onions, whose flavor (when raw) is muddy–save those for cooking.
- Foods that pair with Negra Modelo: Because of the rich, malty flavor of the beer, it goes well with more complex dishes like caldo de siete mares (seafood stew) and black mole. Use a light beers for simpler preparations of seafood and fish tacos.
He ended his talk, sharing the things that he loved about the Mission District food businesses we visited. He noted the important role these small producers play in building community, “support places like that.”
I couldn’t agree more.
(Photo courtesy of Negra Modelo)
My participation in this culinary tour of San Francisco was sponsored by Negra Modelo USA as part of their #thePerfectComplement campaign. All opinions are all my own. Thanks to Rick Bayless for sharing his passion for Mexican food & culture. Thanks also to all of the other Bay Area food writers that I had the pleasure to meet. Check out their sites for delicious inspiration:
Amy of Amy’s Healthy Baking
Amy of Cooking with Amy
Amy of Very Culinary
Annelies of The Food Poet
Anita of Dessert First
Beth of OMG Yummy
Gabi of Broke Ass Gourmet
Irvin of Eat The Love
Jane of This Week for Dinner
Jasmine of Simply Real Moms
Kimberly of Bake Love Give
Sara Deseran, cookbook author and restauranteur
Sean of Hedonia & Punk Domestics
Stephanie of Lick My Spoon
TerriAnn of Cookies & Clogs
Trish of Mom On Timeout