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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Belinda's Bar - 3202 Mission Street

As I embarked on Mission on Mission this past Friday, I knew my next stop would be Belinda’s bar. However, aside from the name I didn’t know what to expect from this dive bar perched on the corner of Mission and Valencia.

As I approached the entrance of the bar I couldn’t help but notice that the door and the windows were encased by decorative rot iron bars—protecting what, the liquor?

After entering Belinda’s I didn’t see much that required the extra fortification. The alcohol inside presented a valuable commodity for this area of the neighborhood. Sure, someone could climb through the window, open the door from the inside and carry away the pool table, juke box or a bottle of Alize but I didn’t see that type of Thomas-Crowne-Affair commitment or coordination on the part of the bar’s clientele.

Looking in from the street passed the pool table and the jukebox, my eyes met with a rectangle of light which made the promise of a backyard patio. However, as I entered the bar my dreams of an enclosed concrete backyard were met with the evitable disappointment of a halogen light bulb hanging “high-noon” over the 2nd pool table.

At 6pm Belinda’s was crowded and loud as Vicente Fernandez’s Estos Celos played on the juke box. Bonny (short for Bonifacio), an older gentleman to my right, enthusiastically harmonized with Vicente’s sentimental incantations as he simultaneously attempted to work his magic on the bartender. All this under the watchful eye of the Virgin Mary whose portrait was perched over the bar but obscured by an alter of candles and fresh roses.

Unlike the other bars that I have encountered, Belinda’s Bar didn’t offer the usual welcome that I’d grown accustomed to on my Mission; and I would even venture to say that I was greeted with more than a few dirty looks as I bellied up to the bar and burrowed my way onto a bar stool between Bonny and another guy (whose territory I probably encroached). While they had me in numbers I wasn’t worried because I had a solid 3 inches on every dude in the bar and outweighed my biggest contender by about 25 pounds.

In the short time that I’d been at Belinda’s Bonny had downed three shots of tequila and two Heinekens. So, while I was not sure how long he’d been at the bar, I was sure his beer goggles were nice and thick. All in all, it didn’t matter to me—he was friendly enough, interjecting his drunken duet with the Vicente Fernandez, he more than once asked me my opinion of the “enchanting” bartender. That said I’m not sure who’d have been better off in the deal, the bartender or Bonny—his substantial midriff left something to be desired and the cheddary fart he’d left in his wake as he made his way to the restroom nearly choked me to death as I took a swig of my Corona.

In addition to Bonny’s hospitality, I appreciated the flow of street merchants that made their way into Belinda’s. In addition to the somewhat typical girl-selling-roses, there was a jewelry saleswoman followed by a guy who pulled a watch and a crank flashlight from his coat. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to pawn either of these must-have items but did manage to make off with half a beer as he demonstrated the flashlight’s nifty battery-free charging system to an unassuming distracted prospect.

On the “street-meat” front there was a vendor selling pork tamales out of a portable blue cooler with wheels. As a vegetarian I had to pass but the young group of guys sitting next to me seemed quite satisfied with the bushel of tamales that they purchased for less that $5.

As my night came to an evitable conclusion a man walked in pushing a stroller. At first I had to wonder “who brings a baby to a loud dive bar?!” Bringing a tiny baby into the bar would have been ok if the music wasn’t so loud … I was concerned that he might be damaging the little guy’s (or gal’s) ears with Vicente’s crooning.

He made his way to the end of the pool table passed the entrance and dropped the stroller’s shade. As the canopy fell it revealed a small cooler and a basket hanging from the handles. In seconds, he was pulling tortillas out to the basket and taco fixin’s out of his cooler… GENIUS! First, I found backpack-taco guy at Tip Top, and now I had discovered the baby-stroller taco guy at Belinda’s, each offering an innovative and practical approach to street dining. Until now, I had never thought of a stroller as a mini- taco truck but there you have it, live and in-person.

And in case you’re worried about the baby, there was one of those too, but he was in a much smaller stroller with his mom outside as his dad handled the business inside. Only in Mexico… and apparently, theMission too.

Next stop Argus Lounge.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Knockout S.F. – 3223 Mission Street @ Valencia

Mission on Mission has redefined my Fridays.

Three months ago I would look forward to Friday because it meant that I could go home, throw on T-shirt, a pair of jeans and flip flops and shed my corporate uniform of shirt and tie for at least a couple of days. Friday signaled downtime—relaxing at home, watching a couple movies or maybe a manageable mini adventure like a mountain bike ride. In short, Friday was my weekly threshold to a lazier life—it was my “off” switch.

Now, as Friday approaches I get a sense of nervous anticipation, excitement and a little anxiety as the next leg of my journey awaits. Come Friday at 6pm, I usually have no idea what bar I’ll be visiting next, who I’ll encounter, what the experience will be like or if I’ll be welcomed into this new community (or at a minimum blend in). With Mission on Mission, my Fridays are now an exit strategy from my safe and comfortable little weekend box, forcing me to engage with people and places that I would not otherwise encounter. And, I have found that it has become even more than that… it is an opportunity to think critically about my interaction with the “local” – the local as a place, a community and as an individual (a “regular”).

As my Fridays have changed thanks to this new adventure, so too have my weekends. Mission on Mission has forced me to separate my work life and my real life—and I find that I am taking less work home with me on the weekends. And while I am the king of procrastination when it comes to this blog, I somehow still manage to get it done. Writing is far from easy for me and there is great satisfaction in clicking the “publish” button on my posts.

Until now I have not done much introspective rambling about Mission on Mission—and I promise that it won’t be a regular occurrence—but I think it’s important that I put this Mission into a larger context. Even though these first few bars have only been a mile from my house, crossing that dark threshold every Friday at 6pm is like getting off a plane in a foreign country without a place to stay, alone, and without a safety net. This experience of landing in a new territory, surviving the experience and coming away with a story to tell is both exciting and rewarding. In general, I’m not that big on chronicling my experiences or sharing them to an audience of strangers, but its all part of the journey and I’m glad I’ve started it.

Ok, enough introspection, let’s get on with the next bar… I can’t tell you the size of the smile on my face as I passed Lucita's Niteclub and saw that my next stop on the journey was the Knockout.

I’ve been to the Knockout once before on a Saturday afternoon a couple months back. My only recollection of the place was having too many beers, playing a lot of pool and then, as day turned into night, someone offering me a warm, fresh donut. At the time, I had no idea what to make of it but I welcomed the nourishment and washed it down with a beer –delicious, huh? About the same time I finished my donut dinner, a band called the Donuts Disco (classic disco, mutant disco, italo, cosmic, dutch electro old school hip hop and house) took the stage.

This time I made my way through the Knockout’s dark doorway wondered how my evening would compare to last time. And, well, it ended up about the same.

The Knockout has been open for 3 years and the bartender for the evening, Molly, has been working there since the beginning. I was able to join a conversation with her, Elam and Emma –who were the musical entertainment for later that evening.

I’ve gotten pretty good at joining conversations and starting my own so this trip down Mission Street is paying dividends on improving my social skills. Chatting with Elam, originally from Israel, and Emma, from LA, I learned about their music, their backgrounds and how they approach their creative process. I can only imagine what it takes for them to stand in a spotlight in front of an audience, and sing—it is amazing to me and I admire their confidence. Suddenly, clicking the “post” button for Mission on Mission didn’t seem like such a big deal.

Along with the interesting conversation I also shared a drink and shots of Ouzo (Molly’s treat) 3 times over, with the group. Molly prefers Raki, a Turkish drink, but the Ouzo was definitely enough to get me going. I managed to stay until about 9pm which wasn’t long enough to see either Emma or Elam perform. (sorry, next time guys!) But I hope the Ouzo helped ease their nerves as they took the stage.

Decorated with old album covers, brightly colored cartoon posters and band flyers and with a photo booth to the side of the “dance floor”, the Knockout may be dark but it offers a solid positive vibe. Sitting across from Molly, the tattooed clientele and the out of town musicians I felt completely at home in this punk dive bar.

Stumbling out of the Knockout into the chilly San Francisco night I made my way up the block hoping that some Silver Pad Thai with Shrimp would calm the 3 shots of Ouzo rattling around in my brain.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lucita's Niteclub - 3247 Mission Street

I passed 3300 Club and noticed that my next stop would be Lucita’s Niteclub which is about a block away. The brightly colored neon sign beckoned me to enter. The door flanked in glass was welcoming but I was soon put on guard.

Reminiscent of Club Malibu, Lucita's design was cleaner and with a newer feel—the paint was fresh, the bar was clean and a pool table seemed to stand guard over the dance floor. As orderly as the feng shui appeared to be, it didn’t take long to notice that there was an ominous gloom that hung over this tidy, dark bar.

Until now, my safety during Mission on Mission has not been a concern—even the guy sharpening the knife at the bar didn’t freak me out—but within a few steps of entering Lucita’s I encountered something that gave me pause.

In black letters on pink Plexiglas the sign read: “No one under 21 allowed, minimum 2 drinks per person, NO drugs, firearms or fighting will be tolerated”.

WHAT?! No firearms? Since when do you have to put a sign up saying this? In English AND Spanish no less. Parts of Mission Street can be shady but seriously… no firearms or fighting tolerated? This was serious stuff and I took the warning to heart.

On full alert, I swiveled my head around take in the rest of my surroundings. Despite the threatening sign, Lucita’s seemed safe and the guys huddling in the dark corner whispering with the waitress were the only ones that raised any suspicion. I decided that honoring their territory—architectural and otherwise—was the best way to keep things safe for the night

The bartender, Maria, was a 5-beer girl—meaning that after 5 beers she starts looking pretty good to the patrons. Part of her charm was her low cut top, super short black skirt and decent legs—thanks to nice high heels. Her low cut top seemed to do its job—distracting her clients from noticing the extra padding around her middle.

The waitress also managed to garner plenty of attention even though she was an 8-drink girl—and one of those would be a strong shot of tequila... Her spandex shirt fought hard to keep her paunch under wraps but there were a few times when the shirt screamed uncle allowing her belly to breath. In this case, the TV over the end of the bar was the only available distraction but that didn’t stop her from getting some affection from the older gents at the end of the bar.

Plenty of action here with the pool table and the dancing but the atmosphere was pretty much the same as Club Malibu. Thankfully there were no confrontations, firearms or drugs—so I consider this a successful stop on my Mission.

As the weekend wrapped up, I found myself on the top of Bernal Hill (just East of Mission Street overlooking much of San Francisco) enjoying a cold and refreshing Pacifico. Looking down over Mission Street I thought of the 10 bars I’d visited thus far and contemplated the many more yet to come such as The Knockout, El Rio and Roccapulco just to name a few. What have I gotten myself into?

Three quarters of a mile into my journey, with 10 bars under my belt, I still have another 4 miles until I reach the Embarcadero. A long strange trip lies ahead.

Monday, August 4, 2008

3300 Club at 3300 Mission Street

The 3300 Club is on the corner of Mission Street and 29th. The building is old and has a lot of character which is highlighted by the large red 3300 Club marquis jutting out over the corner in front of the entrance. From the moment I walked in I could tell that I was in an Irish Pub and I was ecstatic to see draft beers—which I haven’t seen since my first Mission on Mission stop, St. Mary’s Pub.

As I contemplated delicious options such as Big Daddy, Sierra Nevada, Widmer Hefeweizen, Guinness and Stella Artois, I took in my surroundings punctuated by an eclectic collection of art, signage and a James Brown bobble head. Though tempted by local brew, Big Daddy; I opted for a nice light and refreshing Belgium option instead—Stella it was. The glasses were cold, the beer was delicious and the company was a mix of Hispanics, Whites and even some women.

The pub was busy so I sat in one of the last stools available at the bar between a woman in her 20s and an older gent. The place was relatively quiet, beside the low hum of conversation, until the woman to my right, who aside from me and the old man to my left seemed to be the only ones who were alone, got up and selected some music from the juke box. My ears rejoiced as I heard the Rolling Stones playing “Paint It Black”. I hadn’t heard anything besides Spanish Ranchero music until Friday’s Stones, Beatles and Hendrix kicked off the evening’s tunes.

It was right about 7 when Bruce (white), slouched in the stool next to me, put down his paper and asked about the baseball game. Bruce is, as he describes himself, an 84 year old whose bottom half (of his body) doesn’t work (a lark scooter owner who used his cane on Friday night) but the top half is 20 years younger than his age. He was born and raised in Northern California and is a regular at the 3300 Club frequenting on and off for the past 40 years. He started telling me about some of the history of the place and the Mission neighborhood.

It was strange to be in an Irish pub in the middle of the many Hispanic bars this early on my journey. According to Bruce, the neighborhood used to be heavily populated by Irish and Germans.

Learning this was intriguing and speaking to Bruce I became more interested in the neighborhood’s history.

I’m fairly new to San Francisco, 3 years, so learning this was fascinating. During the 19th and 20th century there was a large European settlement in San Francisco bringing a great number of Irish and German immigrant workers to the Mission District. This made a lot of sense thinking about all of the great Irish Pubs located throughout the city that have been around forever.

In the 1940 – 1960s the Mission gave way to a large number of Mexicans moving to the area as the whites moved out. The Mexican community has since been joined by immigrants and refugees from Central and South America. Many coming to San Francisco leaving the civil wars that ravaged their countries during the 1980s and 1990s.

By the looks of it, with the growing population of Hipsters around Mission Delores Park, we may soon see another cultural shift start to make its way to Mission Street.

First we had the introduction of Irish freckles and Guinness, moving on to sombreros and tequila soon to become tight pants and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

So if Bruce has been coming here the past 40 years how long have the rest of these people been pulling up a bar stool?

Right about that time Julio introduced himself. Julio (Nicaraguan) and his wife (El Salvadorian) have been Missionites and 3300 Clubbers for almost 20 years. Julio, his wife and I downed a shot (Julio’s treat) as I told him about my background and family.

As we talked Bruce and Julio would reference other regulars and their stories. I laughed because they weren’t only referencing these folks by their names and nationalities but also by the time they usually show up. I started to feel like I was a guest in someone’s house and wondered if I was in someone’s seat.

It’s amazing how quickly two hours can fly by when you’re chatting it up with a cool group of people who have just welcomed you into their place. On my way out I thanked Owen, Irish bartender, said goodbye to Bruce (Julio and his wife left a few minutes earlier) and walked out into the windy San Francisco evening wondering how long I’d be living in the city and if I’ll ever call a bar my own like these guys do.