GraceAnn Walden's fair complexion and short red hair give her away: She's part Irish. But as a professional cook, she forages for ingredients in North Beach, the Little Italy of...
SAN FRANCISCO GraceAnn Walden’s fair complexion and short red hair give her away: She’s part Irish. But as a professional cook, she forages for ingredients in North Beach, the Little Italy of the West, and she’s been introducing visitors to its culinary treasures for more than 20 years.
Russell Chinn, 69, was born in Chinatown and still lives in the house where he grew up. Tag along with him for a morning, and he’ll teach you how to make a fortune cookie, explain why the skin on a chicken in a poultry-shop window is black, and introduce you to one of the neighborhood’s finest calligraphers.
When Patricia Rose explains the significance behind dozens of colorful scenes painted on the walls of buildings in the mainly Latino Mission District, she does so from personal experience. She’s lugged buckets of paint up ladders and climbed scaffolding to work alongside fellow muralists.
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Walking San Francisco is their business, more specifically helping others learn about food, history and art on walking tours through the city’s ethnic neighborhoods.
Continents apart yet just a few miles away from the Fisherman’s Wharf-Union Square tourist circuit, these cities within the city invite exploring. Anyone can poke around on his own, but joining an organized stroll is a little like meeting up with a friend who knows all the best places.
Put on your walking shoes and come along (the walks are short and the hills aren’t that steep). Chances are you’ll uncover a side of San Francisco you haven’t seen before.
Saturday tour will satisfy your appetite for food, history
“We’re going to rock. We’re going to roll,” GraceAnn Walden tells two dozen of us gathered in front of the Bank of America building at Stockton and Columbus Streets in the heart of North Beach.
Walden is a former union organizer who writes a restaurant column for the San Francisco Chronicle. She wears the outfit of an urban hiker black-and-white shorts with matching top and tennis shoes. From a rainbow-colored string bag she pulls the day’s agenda: five hours of tasting, sampling and sipping broken up by historical stops and ending with a three-course lunch.
She calls her Saturday morning walks “Mangia! North Beach,” Italian for “Eat” North Beach. The cost is $60 per person, and she makes it clear we’ll get our money’s worth.
“We’re going to all of these places and have tastings along the way,” she says, passing out a sheet listing the names of two bakeries, a butcher shop, several restaurants, a coffee roaster and a chocolate maker. But first, a bit of background.
Shouting above the traffic noise, she explains that North Beach was first populated by Northern Italian farmers from Genoa and Lucca in the early 1800s, who fled first to New York, then headed West. They were followed by Sicilian fishermen in the 1850s who ultimately established Fisherman’s Wharf.
Today, only about 10 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are Italian. Some moved to the suburbs; others were forced out by higher rents, but that’s changing again, and more are starting to move back.
“People say that the people from Chinatown pushed all the Italian people out, but that’s not true. Many of them just wanted to have a single-family house and a yard, just like everyone else.”
Our first stop is A. Cavalli & Co., an Italian bookstore and one of the oldest stores in North Beach.
“We’re down to just one deli now. When I came here 30 years ago, there were five,” she says. An old Italian hardware store is closed, but other shops have hung on a focaccia bread baker and the coffee roaster among them. Many are run by third-generation owners such as John Valentini, whose grandfather started A. Cavalli in 1880.
Inside Cavalli’s, we find Italian playing cards, videos, magazines and a copy of “Harry Potter” translated into Italian, but we’re distracted by music coming from the street.
We watch as members of the Green Street Band march along Columbus Avenue in a funeral procession. A convertible follows, carrying a large photo of the deceased. The tradition started a century ago before there were newspapers in Chinatown to let people know who died. “Now anyone can buy the service,” Walden says. “When I go, I want it.”
She leads us next into a U S Bank branch office. Tucked upstairs is the North Beach Museum. The room is filled with old photos, including some of the neighborhood’s more famous residents, such as Joe DiMaggio, who played baseball here as a kid.
Walden points to a photo of a fishing boat rocking in the bay to illustrate the hardships immigrants endured to make a living. “You’re in a little boat like this. … You fall in. … You’ve got about 20 minutes no wetsuits.”
Enough history for now, she says. It’s time for our first taste: “Brutti ma Buoni” (ugly but good) cookies at Victoria Pastry, a neighborhood bakery since 1904.
Boxes of pasta line a shelf behind a glass case filled with canolli and rum custard cakes. Walden buys a bag of cookies, and invites us to reach in for a sample. The snow-white mounds filled with dried fruit and almond paste aren’t ugly at all. They taste like summer.
Across the street is Little City Meats (the Italians named North Beach Little City, not Little Italy), “a rare breed, a real butcher shop,” Walden tells us. A sign in the window advertises “Sicilian sausage plain, anise or hot.” Inside is third-generation owner Mike Spinali hand-cranking long ropes of meat through a grinder as an assistant divides the sausage into links, not with string, but by twisting the casing, as if he were tying an overhand knot.
While Spinali passes out small chunks of Parmesan cheese, Walden goes to a refrigerator in back and removes what looks like a lump of coal. “This is as good as gold,” she shouts, holding up a truffle, a rare mushroom-like tuber that sells for about $1,200 a pound. “Smells like the earth,” she says, and urges us to take a sniff.
While many Italians have left North Beach over the years, others have moved in, and “this is a much more multi-cultural area these days,” Walden says. She announces that it’s time for a beer, and leads us into O’Reilly’s on Green Street for a detour to Ireland to sip Murphy’s stout and snack on warm soda bread. Then it’s onto XOX, a business owned by French candy maker Jean-Marc Gorce, 36, who handcrafts 20 varieties of chocolate truffles inside his bright blue-and-yellow storefront on Columbus Avenue.
After a heart attack at age 30, Gorce, then head chef for a downtown San Francisco hotel, looked for a way to slow down. There’s no rushing truffle-making, he explains, demonstrating how he mixes melted chocolate with cream and flavorings, forms the mixture into knobby balls with his fingers, and rolls them in cocoa powder to resemble miniature versions of the tubers we sniffed at Little City Meats.
By the time we sit down to a family-style meal at the Washington Square Bar & Grill, it’s nearly 1:30. We’ve managed to eat our way through the neighborhood by walking less than two miles; still, nobody is ready to pass up lunch.
“No vegetarians, right?” Walden asks. She rolls her eyes at the idea of anyone giving up meat sauce, then makes the sign of the cross in a gesture of thanks.
For the next two hours, she tells stories as we lunch on fried artichokes, a salad of shaved fennel with truffle oil, huge bowls of rigatoni in a spicy red sauce with black olives and capers. For dessert, there’s lemon-curd tarts with raspberries and cream.
Chris and Michelle Woodfall, the couple sitting next to me, have already drawn up a list of places they were eager to revisit. Walden says most of the people who take her tours are locals like the Woodfalls, who live just 20 minutes away.
“We’ve already said we’re coming back,” Michelle said. “Maybe even tomorrow.”
Political, social themes accent many colorful street murals
The mission district, a predominately Latino neighborhood just east of the Castro District, is famous for its cheap taquerías, Mexican street markets, music clubs and an emerging Valencia Street restaurant scene. But what’s the story behind the huge, colorful murals covering the walls and facades of all of the buildings?
Patricia Rose, a member of the Precita Eyes Muralists Association, an organization of local artists, answers the question in her weekend Mission Trail Mural Walks, 1½- to two-hour strolls ($10-$12) that take visitors past 60 or 70 murals in what seems like a giant outdoor gallery of public art.
A friend and I have joined a half-dozen others on a bright Sunday afternoon for a walk that begins with a slide show at the Precita Eyes Mural Arts & Visitors Center on 24th Street in the heart of the Mission. Next door is a Wash & Dry laundry; across the street, the Sweetheart Bakery. Mexican music blares from a boom box on the sidewalk, and I forget for a minute that I’m in San Francisco.
“San Francisco as a whole has more than 1,000 outdoor murals, but the densest concentration is in the Mission,” says Rose. “They’re around every corner and on every street, wherever you go.”
She switches on the projector and takes us back to the Golden Age of muralism in Mexico, the period between 1921 and 1973, when the government commissioned public art.
Political and social themes dominated, as they do on the streets of the Mission today, with many of the murals reflecting strong community, family and cultural themes.
The paintings have been done by professionals working with brushes and outdoor acrylic paint; youths using spray cans; and young children taking part in community-run grief workshops. The art appears on bank buildings, schools, homes, churches, community centers, fences and garages.
Some of the works, such as the three-story depiction of famous female artists and writers on the San Francisco Women’s Building, cover entire structures. Others take a day or a weekend, depending on how many artists are involved. With proper care and cleaning, a mural can last 20 or 25 years, but paint becomes brittle and many deteriorate and disappear over time.
The Mission District is large, and Rose’s walk is a low-key and relaxing stroll that covers just a few blocks.
The Precita center has maps for those who want to explore more on their own, but this is a good introduction. We stroll through residential neighborhoods as she points out murals painted on the walls of a meat market, a bakery and the rectory of a Catholic Church.
We pass the China Books & Periodicals Co. on 24th Street, and Rose explains that the owner asked the artist to create a scene done in the style of revolutionary painters from China. The result is a work called “A Bountiful Harvest,” an idyllic scene that depicts farmers at work in the fields. Painted on a bridge are the images of people from the neighborhood who helped with the mural and the owner of the store.
The most impressive concentration of murals is on Balmy Alley, a block-long residential street gallery with more than 30 different works. Painted on a fence is a colorful mural depicting the struggles of women in Nepal by an Irish artist. Another, titled the “Five Sacred Colors of Corn,” shows a woman giving birth with the help of her husband.
All the murals in the Mission were painted with the permission of the building owners. Many landlords solicit and pay for the work, sometimes with more than purely artistic reasons in mind.
One Balmy Alley resident was anxious to find a way to stop an alcove near his building from being used as a public toilet. “They decided they needed a mural,” Rose recalls. The artist painted the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the corner wall.
Russell Chinn will give you a fresh look at its history
Beyond the souvenir shops stocked with tea sets and jade necklaces, women shop for the family dinner in markets selling live turtles and frogs, and calligraphers like Zu Yin Li work quietly away from the crowds.
Nearly everyone who visits San Francisco walks through Chinatown, but with the help of Russell Chinn, 69, a lifelong resident, 14 of us, including a family from North Carolina and one from Florida, each with three young boys, become temporary insiders.
Chinn leads tours for Shirley Fong-Torres, whose Wok Wiz company organizes daily walks that end with a dim-sum lunch. ($40 with lunch; $28 without)
He promises a slow mile with no steep climbs as we leave the Wok Wiz offices on Commercial Street and follow him to Portsmouth Square in the heart of Chinatown.
Framed by a view of the bay and the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building in the distance, groups of men huddle around park benches playing cards and checkers. Some are retired; others are recent immigrants. Few speak English, and in a densely populated neighborhood, where many share small apartments, this plaza is a community living room.
“You are standing where San Francisco’s history began,” Chinn begins. Named for the U.S.S. Portsmouth, it was here that the American flag was first raised in 1846. Chinese, working as laborers on the railroads, built a settlement near the docks along Dupont Street, now Grant Avenue, the main artery of a roughly eight-block-long neighborhood where 30,000 Chinese live today.
As we walk, Chinn points out pagoda-style buildings with upturned corners painted in reds yellows and greens, Chinese colors symbolizing good luck, prosperity and good health. Around 150 buildings like this are owned by benevolent associations, social clubs first formed to protect Chinese residents, now serving as “welcome wagons” for newcomers.
He leads us down Ross Alley (known as Mexican Alley among the Chinese because Mexican workers once lived here), to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Co. where two women work inside an open doorway folding paper fortunes into warm discs of dough, and then across the alley to an unmarked yellow-frame building, the workshop of calligrapher Zu Yin Li.
“The Chinese believe you can judge a person by how well he does his brushwork,” Chinn says, and Zu Yin Li is a master craftsman. He dips his brush into a pot of black ink and lets it glide along a strip of paper as he forms the characters that symbolize a name in Chinese. We don’t linger long enough here, but Chinn’s tour is fast-paced, and since it’s nearly lunchtime, he’s anxious to take us shopping.
“All live frogs and turtles are to be killed before leaving the store,” reads a sign outside the Sun Duck Market around the corner on Stockton Avenue.
“A lot of people shop once before lunch and once before dinner,” Chinn explains, and the Stockton markets are where to go for anything from fresh taro root to a “silky chicken” with slightly blackened skin said to be good for women’s health.
Chinn finds a box of “1,000-year-old” duck eggs fermented in mud. The whites are black; the yokes are green. “It’s like eating a fine cheese,” he says. “Very smelly but tasty.”
We visit a Taoist temple where a woman blesses us with jasmine-scented incense, and stop to sample ginseng tea, then it’s time for lunch at the Four Seas Restaurant on Grant Avenue.
Chinn doesn’t eat, but moves from table to table, coaching us how to hold our chopsticks, and giving the boys in the group the go-ahead to eat their pork dumplings “like a burger,” and their eggrolls “like a drum stick.”
The meal ends with pastries the size of golf balls, coated with sesame seeds and filled with lotus seed paste. The kids aren’t sure about these at first, but after Chinn’s description, they can relate.
“It’s like a Chinese Krispy Kreme,” he says. “Only heavier.”
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com