In considering rapidly-evolving Valencia Street, it’s easy to forget that some businesses have endured for more than four decades and show no signs of stopping.
Take Valencia between 16th and 17th Streets, for example, where three old-line Mexican restaurants – Taquería El Toro, Puerto Alegre, and Taquería La Cumbre – have fed workers, tourists and neighbors for decades. They’ve endured the loss of parking when the Mission Police Station moved up the block in 1994, the recession of 2008, and new competition from upscale restaurants.
Improvising and adjusting to a change is something that all have long managed to do and expect to continue doing. Take Puerto Alegre, for example. Its first challenge came early on.
When the founders moved from Ayutla in Jalisco, Mexico more than 40 years ago, they originally intended to open a taquería, but the building wasn’t quite the right shape for it. Instead, it morphed into a sit-down restaurant.
Amparo Vigil and her siblings, who grew up in the restaurant, now run it – at any given time, at least one of them will be there.
Vigil says she remembers the different phases her parents’ restaurant went through: from installing indoor plants to fish tanks to a pool table.
“Back then [my father] was trying to cater to everyone,” she said.
Now, it’s found its footing, especially with its margaritas, which landed on SFist’s list of 10 best margaritas in the Bay Area.
Across the street, Taquería La Cumbre has had almost 50 years to find its niche. It was opened in 1967 by Mexican immigrants Raul and Michaela Duran. Raul arrived in San Francisco in the early 1950’s when he was 17, and turned to the United States military for employment.
“There were really no forms of employment – no high school education, no nothing. So he did what anybody else would do: he lied about his age and joined the army,” said his son Edward Duran.
He was originally stationed as a cook in Western Germany – where Edward says he got preferential treatment for being mistaken for the musician Trini Lopez – but eventually made his way back to San Francisco, met Michaela, and opened up La Cumbre.
Throughout the decades, La Cumbre has garnered much national attention – from Rolling Stone to Man v. Food – although Duran says there were some “lean times” in the 1970s while people were getting used to their style.
Raul has now retired and spends his time living on a golf course, taking daily 5-mile walks, and spending time with his second wife and his chihuahua, according to Edward, who now runs the place. (With occasional check ins by his father.)
Edward has been working at La Cumbre basically since it opened – except when he was off at college or doing his Masters – and has many great memories of La Cumbre, from writer Herb Caen composing his columns in the corner to Jorge Santana, Carlos’s brother, working the register to the Ramones popping in for a bite to eat.
“We had a deal working with a limo company and they would carry all the artists that came to San Francisco…Invariably the artists would ask the limo drivers, ‘Hey, where is a good place to good eat?’ and most of the time the limo drivers were pretty good, and they would say, ‘Come to La Cumbre,’” he said.
Sometimes that led to sticky situations, said Duran – like when the predominantly Spanish-speaking workers at La Cumbre couldn’t understand the accents of UK artists like Van Morrison.
However, recent changes have made it harder for La Cumbre, which prides itself on being the “Birthplace of the Mission Burrito,” although that feat has long been contested.
“In the 80’s we always had a line out the door, but that was because it was mainly comprised of our neighborhood,” said Duran. Nowadays, with the constant turnover in the neighborhood there are more new people and less regulars.
Much to Duran’s chagrin, people are now turning to Yelp and the internet, which he says he is not very savvy with. He also says their profit margins are small because they spend so much money on quality ingredients, and also because of new restrictions – like new taxes – that have been imposed by the government.
Gary Espinoza of El Toro also says that much has changed since he opened his taquería straight out of college in 1981.
“At that time it was a lot different from what it is now,” he said of the early days of El Toro.“It was a working neighborhood. There were a lot of businesses, a lot of parking, a lot of everything. In the daytime, there was the business crowd, and at nighttime, the residential crowd.”
Espinoza said that one of the biggest challenges came in 1994, when the development of a new police station meant lost parking spaces. That loss, according to Espinoza, made it harder for El Toro to retain some of its customers.
“It was easier to make it a destination [before],” he said.
Nowadays, Espinoza said, their customers tend to come either on foot or by public transport, although he says that they keep coming.
“There’s plenty of competition,” said Duran. “The upside is that we’re all very good at what we do, so consequently we’re able to somehow, somehow eek out a little bit of a livelihood.”
Duran says that he harbors no ill will towards Espinoza, though he did mention jokingly that when El Toro opened it took a lot of La Cumbre’s employees, and that Espnioza keeps holding out on giving Duran the name of his social media manager.
“I consider them to be our sisters or our brother businesses,” said Vigil of the taquerías on the block. “We’re not a taquería so in that sense I’m not trying to compete with them…and I appreciate that they’re there, that they exist. We’ve been here for a long time, they’ve been there for a while also.”
Duran mentioned that though he knows and respects the other owners, it’s hard to find the time to keep up.
“Maybe if there’s another earthquake and then the gas pipes all go down and we all go into the street, we’ll start talking again,” he said. “That happened in 1989…that was a weird day.”
These business all share similar challenges on the block – the latest one, according to Vigil, being the onslaught of “upscale restaurants.”
“It’s our neighborhood and we walk to and from our house to our business and to feel it just sort of all of a sudden become this, Broadway street almost,” she said. “It felt a little threatening and unsettling for my family and all of us.”
Back in 2011, the MacNiven family proposed a new upscale Southwestern restaurant, and Vigil was concerned that it was conceptually similar to Puerto Alegre. Even after coming to an agreement with the MacNiven brothers – who changed their concept to old western comfort food and their name to West of Pecos – Amparo’s sister Patricia Vigil expressed anxiety about it.
“It’s a little overwhelming because we live there and we have our children there. We are a small business and we hope that we don’t get pushed out,” she said to Mission Local in 2011.
“They were concerned at first, but they’ve been fantastic neighbors,” said Tyler MacNiven, who owns West of Pecos with his brother and father.
“We’re a family restaurant…and it’s nice to be surrounded by so many family businesses,” he said.
The only new restaurant to directly compete in tacos opened in 2012 when the New Zealand-born chef Andrew Johnstone decided to open a branch of his Divisadero restaurant – the Little Chihuahua – on Valencia.
Johnstone’s hook was high-quality ingredients. He traded mariachi for indie rock and “authentic” for “organic”, putting his own twist on a traditional format.
“We’ve always said we’re Mexican-inspired,” he said, “we’re not a traditional Mexican place.”
For Johnstone, the opportunity to expand to Valencia fell into his lap, and he saw it as a personal challenge.
“We wanted to see if we could hold up against the more traditional places,” said Johnstone. “If we could survive on Valencia, we could survive anywhere,” he said, adding that after 6-8 months of “growing pains” business is now doing quite well.
Members of the block are both supportive and skeptical.
“Nowadays, what people call organic we just called food,” said Duran.
“It doesn’t feel like what it used to feel like before,” said Vigil. “There are way fewer Latinos on the street now. Most of them are working in the restaurants. We’re still there, and there’s a couple across the street, and I don’t know of too many more.”
Despite challenges and changes, these restaurants are all persevering.
“We believe that you’re only as good as your last burrito, so they all better be good,” said Duran.