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Monday, September 29, 2008

Roccapulco - 3140 Mission Street

The day finally came, the day I entered Roccapulco. If Mission on Mission is my Everest then Roccapulco is my Hillary Step—hard to get to, intimidating and a necessary milestone as I continue my journey towards Mission on Mission’s final destination.

Located at 3140 Mission Street between Cesar Chavez and Valencia, Roccapulco is tough not to notice with its name splashed brilliantly across a mammoth purple façade and its illuminated marquee hanging over the sidewalk. For this adventurer of the night, Roccapulco has been the biggest “unknown” among the many (relative) certainties along my Mission. Since I started Mission on Mission I have often driven by Roccapulco wondering what my evening there would behold.

As I prepared for my Friday at Roccapulco, I had to consider a few extra provisions that, as of yet, I have not needed to negotiate—specifically, purchasing tickets in advance, a dress code and my lack of ability when it comes to salsa dancing.

To satisfy Roccapulco’s “no jeans, no tennis shoes” dress code, I donned slacks, a button up shirt and casual shoes. With my $45 tickets in hand, I made my way down the street eager to see if Grupo Niche would live up to their hefty price tag—which was $30 over the club’s usual $15 cover charge. As I approached the club’s grand entrance, I passed a parked police car only to see 3 of our SF’s finest congregating at an open doorway that seemed to tunnel into the club. While there didn’t seem to be any commotion taking place, I took note of their presence which seemed to bolster the many Yelp reviews I have read claiming that this section of the Mission is a particularly rough part of town.

I pushed my computer generated ticket through the ticket window and was immediately frisked before being allowed to enter the massive structure. Security seemed to be a big priority at the club, as I evidenced by the swarm of bouncers who circled inside the doorway, dressed in black and chattering through their microphones and earpieces.

Given the attention paid to its exterior, Roccapulco’s interior décor is disappointing. With a few neon lights peppered throughout the enormous, hanger-like cavern, light was a precious commodity. Serviced by 2 bars—one located at the entrance and another in the back of the club—sweaty, post-salsa patrons eagerly waited to quench their thirst on buckets of Corona. The centerpieces of the club, the dance floor and the stage somehow seemed to make up for the club’s lack of decoration acceptable.
I weaved my way to the back bar through the masses as the band played. Circling the dance floor, a multitude of booths hosting groups of 4 to 6 and tables of couples enjoyed their buckets of Coronas as they, along with those looking down from the balcony, watched the ebb and flow of dancers stepping on and off the dance floor. The whole place reminded me of the Havana nightclubs you often see in Mafia movies.

Roccapulco intimidated me because I knew that it would require me to scoot my feet and move my hips. Of the many things I’m not good at, dancing and singing are at the top of the list. But, with every sip of Corona my courage grew and I quickly realized that my aversion to dancing was diminishing—I decided that dancing wasn’t that big of a deal. For the crowd, dancing seemed to fluctuate between accomplished Salsa steps (which Roccapulco is know for) to amateur shimmying—feet glued to the floor, shoulders and heads bobbing erratically back and forth. Though I am no salsa expert, I could tell that amongst the flock of tight, bedazzled and sometimes outrageous outfits, the dancers ranged from amateur to experienced.

As the band played on I worked my way to the dance floor to cut some rug. It wasn’t pretty and I could tell that my steps were being evaluated by the crowd ranging from 20-something guys who were out on the town with their “chicas” to a 60 year old couple dancing their hearts out. As I scanned my dancing radius, I noticed some less than hospitable looks from guys who were tightly holding onto their ladies—maybe my moves were better than I thought!

In the end Roccapulco was as entertaining as any other stopover along Mission Street. Though the band did not live up the exorbitant ticket price, Roccapulco’s pseudo-salsa dancing make the club a unique and fun experience much in the same way that El Rio’s burlesque show and the Knockout’s live bands make those places the gems they are. I didn’t see any hipsters or Rocabillies but through my research found that there is a large salsa community in San Francisco. I wonder if you have to wear sequins to fit in.

As far as safety goes… my night began with pat down and as I left Roccapulco I passed a pair of cops lingering by the front bar. I felt safer here than in many of the other places in my odyssey. The Mission on Mission “Hillary Step” turned out to be more a figment of my imagination than the reality that is Roccapulco.

I don’t salsa yet but the Salsa classes offered on most Friday nights at 8:30pm are appealing. Maybe there’s hope for this Mexican born without any detectable rhythm or soul to speak of.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A bump in the road...

After making it 3 months without missing a Mission on Mission Friday night it finally happened. After a busy work week and with a broken body, I sat on the couch too sick to attempt Roccapulco. From about 4pm to 4:30pm there was an outside chance that I was going to make the trip but after much deliberation I figured that Roccapulco warranted my full strength. Attempting this next destination without the proper reserve of energy would surely have put me at a disadvantage when it came to the salsa dancing classes, fighting the crowd and cheering on the band.

Next Friday night promises to be a festive evening as the Roccapulco Supper Club welcomes Grupo Niche, a well known Colombian band (which I am sure will warrant an advanced ticket purchase). This next stop on the Mission will also commence slightly later than usual because the club’s doors don’t open until 8pm – which ties in nicely to recent feedback that I’ve received about the Mission’s start time.

A number of readers have commented that Mission on Mission’s Friday launch time of 6pm is too early in the evening and is causing me to miss out on some important late night action—particularly at bars that don’t have an early-evening crowd. Initially, I had decided to start Mission on Mission at 6pm because it would give me insight into the after work/happy hour crowd. While this earlier timeslot has rendered some bars completely empty, it has also given me the unique chance to chat with bartenders, bouncers and regulars to learn about the history and culture these places have to offer. That said Mission on Mission isn’t just a review of local pubs and their clientele, it is also a travelogue about transecting San Francisco at a certain time every week in an effort to uncover the city’s unexpected characters and treasures.

However, as readers have pointed out, I am undoubtedly missing out on some important idiosyncrasies of each bar. So, after much serious thought, I have decided to continue Mission on Mission at its usual 6pm time slot and, if after one hour the bar does not come to life, I will return later in the evening in an attempt to behold its full potential. Hopefully, this new approach will give me a more insightful glimpse into the full spectrum of what each bar has to offer.

Keep on reading and thanks to those of you who’ve commented and sent in emails your feedback and comments have been extremely valuable.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Nap's 3 - 3152 Mission Street

Last Friday I was simmering in the hot sun, enjoying a nice cold beer as I took in an entertaining burlesque show at El Rio. This week, on an overcast, frosty Friday night I entered Nap’s thinking I should ask for a hot Tennessee Mud rather than an icy Pacifico. As I drank I willed the cloud cover to give way to the sun’s last opportunity to warm me up.

My hopes didn’t get realized and the nippy breeze pushed me past a gentleman wearing a cowboy hat and boots who was busily swinging a large Maglite from side to side. For a quick moment I couldn’t tell if he was the bouncer or just some guy playing with a giant flashlight and having a good time singing along to James Brown on the jukebox.

The bartender, Jesus, was doing his best impression of Danny Trejo. Donning a Nap’s 3 logoed vest and a two foot ponytail, he looked more like an off-the-strip Vegas card dealer than a Mission dive bartender—I mean how many dive bars have uniforms!? I attempted to strike up a conversation with him but he didn’t seem to be in the mood.

Nap’s 3, a self-professed sports karaoke bar was artfully decorated with promotional beer posters ranging from the lovely Budweiser girls to the NASCAR sponsored drivers. These cheap posters were in stark contrast to the 45’s, small disco balls, dream-catchers and the odd fly strip that dangled from the bar’s glimmering ceiling. I’m not sure what the “3” in the bar’s name is all about (I can’t imagine that Nap’s 3 is the third bar in a successful chain of San Francisco karaoke dive bars) but it certainly begs for an explanation. I’ll have to ask Nap, the owner, someday when I return to the place because on this particular evening he was too preoccupied with trying to fix the television and the karaoke machine to mingle with his customers.

Nap’s 3 receives surprisingly excellent reviews on Yelp though on this Friday night it was quiet and I was joined by only a handful of other patrons. I figured there had to be more to Nap’s—so I made my way through the bar beer in hand as James crooned in the background. Migrating past two women who were sitting at the end of the bar and a lone pool player; I made my way through a small hallway which opened up into a large patio.

The spacious patio was cluttered with an accumulation of tables, chairs and umbrellas which was probably why it was vacant. Across the fence, the bar’s neighbor, El Rio, seemed to be enjoying a large backyard crowd as a steady stream of chatter and music cascaded over the fence. Standing in the vacant enclosure, I couldn’t help but think about this humble bar’s potential. With so few bars in San Francisco having outdoor seating, Nap’s doesn’t seem to recognize that there is a goldmine in his backyard. In a daydream moment I thought about what I could do with a bar like this… back yard, pool table, great location. So much potential!

Returning inside and settling onto my barstool I was once again confronted by the flashlight wielding buckaroo who was now enjoying a duet with Aretha Franklin as he sipped his beverage. By now I had confirmed that he was in fact the sheriff of this pub—maintaining law and order over the place while partaking in conversation with anyone who returned the favor.

Before my evening drew to a close, a panhandler approached the bar’s entrance but was quickly turned away with a $0.50 handout in exchange for preventing his offensive odor from crossing the threshold of the bar. Shortly thereafter a hombre and his female companion came to the door pushing a stroller that had a kid inside and a bag of grilled corn hanging from the handlebars. I hadn’t seen the Corn Guy before and was once again astonished by the number and diversity of street food vendors that Mission Street employs. Nap gave a “maíz a la parrilla” shout out to his customers to see if anyone was interested … there were no takers and the Corn Salesman moved on to the next place.

As 8pm approached Nap’s was still waiting to hit its stride while El Rio was humming with activity next door. I had to wonder if Nap’s ever lives up to the wonderful Yelp reviews because it sure didn’t on this Friday night. As I left Nap’s I took a quick look over at Roccapulco, next week’s destination. At 8pm the place looked completely closed but judging from its website, 10pm might be a better time to visit I’ll have to adjust my start time next week and, for the first time on my journey, be prepared to pay a cover charge.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

El Rio - 3158 Mission Street

At the conclusion of a very scorching late summer day in the Bay Area, the Mission on Mission led me to the next stop along my journey. El Rio, a bar that defines itself as “your dive”, is the perfect oasis on the rare summer day in SF.

El Rio’s entrance is deceptively unassuming—but as I walked through the bar’s plain gray doors I was accosted by the bar’s dynamic vitality. Packed but not stuffed, the bar hosted a lively crowd who were busily wetting their whistles and chatting with their friends as music blared in the background.

Hosting a clientele from all walks of life this surprisingly large bar on Mission Street puts “happy” back in “happy hour”. The just-off-work crowd captured the diversity of San Francisco’s 20- to 40-something professionals with representatives from the financial district, local construction sites, Mission coffeehouses and even the drag scene. El Rio’s Happy Hour runs from 5 – 9pm but on this hot evening draught beers were out of commission so my suds of choice were Red Stripes, an option I often overlook.

El Rio lives up to its claim of being “your dive” with the usual telltale signs of a dive bar: pool table, shuffleboard table near the entrance, juke box (a dive bar necessity), Giants’ game on the tube, DJ booth, dice behind the bar and, of course, what every dive bar needs … regulars. The rare hot weather was reason enough for any regular to make their way to El Rio for a cold beer—it also provided Bernal and Lower Mission inhabitants the opportunity to swagger out for the evening in their “summer attire”—which on this particular night meant plenty of pasty skin and tattoos.

As I ventured to the back of the bar, I ended up on the backyard deck overlooking a sizeable patio. In the far corner a grill was available for those who were keen enough to bring some steaks or dogs with them. Though I don’t eat meat, I am sure the steaks go nicely with the oyster appetizers which are occasionally free and served on Friday nights starting at 5:30pm. I hear those go quick so make sure you’re there early. There’s a lot going on at this neighborhood bar and the backyard deck and patio is a great space for hanging out, catching up with old friends and making new ones.

Hanging out on the patio my senses were bombarded with music, lively conversation, cigarette smoke and an even wider array of colorful outfits, skin and some really incredible well-done tattoos. I even caught a glimpse of a woman in fishnet stockings wearing nothing else but a red button-up shirt that barely covered her derriere. And, actually, she didn’t even stand out as much in the sea of other interesting outfits—some slinkier than others. That was before I noticed the flyer for the Red Hots Burlesque show that was sitting the deck’s railing … SF’s most socially conscious burlesque show appears at El Rio every Friday night from 7:30-9pm.

When in Rome…

The stage was located off the patio in a separate a room that also has a DJ booth and seating—the perfect spot for a live band or, in this case, a striptease. With a $5 - $10 donation, the cover charge was reasonable especially considering that some of the money goes to charity.

Kingfish, the comedian/host of this event, brought the standing-room-only crowd to attention by grabbing the mic and telling a few hack jokes. The gathering, which looked to be more women than men, waited with anticipation as the first performer was introduced.

The burlesque starlets sang, danced and performed their routines to the enthusiastic and rowdy audience. Tattooed and au naturale, the performers brought down the house with their modern and cheeky interpretations of this vaudevillian tradition with reviews ranging from a risqué striptease to a comedic interpretation of fan dancing. At the midpoint of the performance the audience was given the opportunity to purchase $1 raffle tickets for a drawing where the raffle winner would get to select a charity for the collected raffle funds. My tickets were losers but it was nice knowing the money was going to a good cause.

As the performance came to a close, so too did my evening. The burlesque show was definitely a highlight of the evening. After having had my fill of beers I meandered through the still-busy bar and stepped out into the mild, fog-free SF night.

Next up…. Naps.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Argus Lounge - 3187 Mission Street

The Argus Lounge was the perfect conclusion to my Friday and my week. My day started without obligation… I took the day off in honor of my birthday which was on Thursday and spent my morning managing my fantasy- football and baseball teams before heading to an afternoon matinee, Pineapple Express (a good movie for those of you who haven’t seen it), followed by a trip to the gym. I then counteracted my workout with a little Mission on Mission.

The Argus had an unhurried vibe as couples sat together catching up after a long day’s work— libations in hand. The dimness of the bar mellowed my mood but the overly amplified melodic troll of Willie Nelson kept me alert. The bar was decorated with a stuffed peacock and bulls’ skulls. Across the serving corridor, a naugahyde booth sat under a four picture, framed series of Jesus’ last supper. A DJ stand near the entrance promised that this place would come alive later in the evening.

The bar’s ambience and décor squared perfectly with its namesake, the Argus Panoptes from Greek mythology. It also explained the cryptic peacock feather on the bar’s exterior sign (with no wording).

Taken from the lounge’s website http://www.arguslounge.com/: The

“Argus is a monster with a hundred eyes. He was thus a very effective watchdog, as only a few of the eyes would sleep at a time; there were always several eyes still awake. Argus was Hera’s servant; Her last task for him was to guard a white heifer from Hera’s husband, Zeus. Hera knew that the heifer was in reality Io, one of Zeus’ many girlfriends. To free Io, Zeus had Argus slain by Hermes. Hermes succeeded in putting all of Argus’ eyes asleep with boring stories, being disguised as a shepherd. To reward good service, Hera had the hundred eyes of Argus preserved forever, in the tail of a peacock.”

Happy Hour was a time for being lulled into relaxation as Mindy, the bartender, served my evening’s delicious nectar, Prohibition Ale.

Sitting between Queen’s Nails, an edgy art gallery that regularly shows established and emerging artists (sometimes tame but mostly not) and High Bridge Arms, a gun shop that’s been in business at the same location since the mid-50s, the Argus is surprisingly less animated than its neighbors—but for a Friday night before Labor Day weekend it was the perfect stop for a relaxing elixir.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Argus Lounge

Due to the Labor Day Holiday my post for the Argus Lounge will be uploaded on Tuesday.