Edith Bello likes to tell her dad’s story — how Alfredo Bello immigrated to the United States from his native Guanajuato, Mexico, in the 1960s with $300 in his pocket. Today he runs three restaurants in San Francisco, and now he’s the new owner of a building on one of the Mission’s most difficult blocks.
“Even though I went to college, I don’t feel like I have accomplished as much as he has,” she said, noting that her father barely finished middle school. He remains shy, and throughout a reporter’s visit, busied himself working in the restaurant.
What’s clear is that he has a knack for attracting a broad-based clientele at his taquerias, which are often filled with workers during the day and the young hipster crowd and others at night.
When Bello first arrived, he visited a family member who worked at Taqueria El Farolito on 24th Street. He ended up putting on an apron, working his way up from line cook to cashier until he saved enough money to open his own place: Taqueria El Castillito at 2092 Mission St. Today he owns two taquerias (the other is in the Civic Center area), and now the Mayan restaurant Kúuup, housed in his new building at 2054 Mission St., between 16th and 17th streets.
Although the blocks near the 16th Street BART station have long been problematic — the area has the Mission’s highest crime rate, according to police — Bello may be on to something. Kúuup is one of four businesses that have opened in the last year on the west side of the 2000 block of Mission Street.
Taqueria Vallarta opened its third San Francisco location on the corner of 16th and Mission streets in August. An insurance firm opened at the corner of 17th and Mission one-and-a-half years ago, and a pizzeria will soon open at 2074 Mission St.
Unlike many of the new Mission restaurants, investment from Kúuup and Taqueria Vallarta comes from within the neighborhood. Business owners said they hope it helps clean up the block.
Juan Rosas, the owner of Taqueria Vallarta, said he knows the area has a bad reputation but sees potential.
“There is a lot of clientele here. It’s close to a BART station, it’s a commercial area,” Rosas said. “The area is getting cleaner and more tranquil.”
Sam Chavez, an employee at Fred Loya Insurance Company, said she feels safe during the day. Besides, the people who hang out on the block mostly keep to themselves.
“Businesses has been good,” Chavez said. “During the day it’s not so rough.”
An employee at a business on the block, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retribution, said the situation has not changed in the seven years he’s worked there.
“It’s always the same people, the same druggies,” he said. “When the police comes they go to the hotels upstairs.”
But Rosas and Edith Bello said they’ve already seen an improvement in that people don’t hang out outside their restaurants. Bello does her part: whenever someone is behaving badly near her restaurant, she tells them to move.
“I go outside and tell them, ‘Excuse me, I am trying to do business here,’” she said. “And they move. I am not scared of them, I’ve been living here my whole life.”
The business owners understand, however, that many before them have failed. The soon-to-be pizzeria was formerly a Thai restaurant, Start 16. It opened in June of last year and closed in the last few weeks. The owners of the pizzeria could not be reached for comment.
The Bellos decided to open Kúuup after customers at Taqueria El Castillito requested that they serve Mayan food, and they remain optimistic that diners will recognize the quality of their food.
Edith Bello said that her father “saw there was a need for it. The food is part of who you are, it’s part of your culture.”
She noted that they spent two years working on the menu with cooks from the Yucatan, and import all their spices from there. They are currently going through the permit process to obtain a beer and wine license.
“Our dream is to have families come sit down and eat a good meal,” she said. She noted that that’s what her father accomplished down the block. On the weekends, families come to the El Castillito to eat menudo, a traditional soup that reminds them of home, she said.