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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Taqueria Cancun

Walking South of Market on unwashed sidewalks deformed, broken, and raised up by overgrown tree roots and years of neglect, I told Mark Ellinger the other night that I thought his and my blog were of the same spirit and similar in purpose; kindred spirits of a sort.

After sleeping on it and thinking about it more today, I can't help but feel that, maybe, I egotistically put myself on a level that I don't deserve.

After all, Mark's work is much more subjective, while the places I write about often place me in the role of an outsider discovering a place for the first time. Still, I would like to compare what Mark does and what I do, if only because, egotistically, I'd feel honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as him.

I think part of the appeal of what we both do lies in what the scientist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, meant when he said "discovery is seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought".

Of course, not all of the places I write about have previously gone unnoticed, while not every hotel Mark photographs has remained unphotographed and ignored by the people who live there. Rather, it's the way him and I connect these seemingly isolated elements together that make them seem, at least to some people, new or interesting.

Mark's hotels are just ordinary buildings until, through his photographs (and essentially, his eyes), we see them, and we think about them, in a way we may have never seen or thought about them before.

If eyes are the windows to one's soul, then we also see a part of Mark himself in, and attached to, each photograph. In each one, he seems to bring out a personality or a feeling - sometimes brazen, sometimes timid - in each hotel or sign or stairway he photographs. An open window can be heavy with insinuation, while a surreal sunrise can reveal a tender moment in the life of a structure seemingly frozen in time.

"Dawn Over Taylor Street", photo by Mark Ellinger

Where dives are concerned, I only wish I could accomplish with the keyboard what Mark does with the camera. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. If I had to type a thousand words for every dive I visited, I'd give this shit up and start drinking again. Your ass is lucky I can barely scratch out the few words I do!

The night of our walk, I had the opportunity to talk to Mark about his work over a burrito at Taqueria Cancun. We had originally planned to meet for dinner at Mimi's Manor House Restaurant but, to our disappointment, it closed at 5 PM. Instead, Mark suggested we head over to Taqueria Cancun at Market and 6th Street.

Now, I've never actually been to the town of Cancun, but I've read about it, and something tells me that Sixth and Market is about as far away from this margarita-swilling-sunburnt-Americans, sanitized tourist resort as you can get.

Nevertheless, I wasn't certain at first that this place would meet my dive criteria. True, it's on Market and Sixth, which is hardcore dive territory. However, everyone and his sister in the greater Bay Area has known that Taqueria Cancun (at 19th and Mission) was the shit for burritos, at least as far back as I can remember (12 years). Like with the new location of Taqueria Pancho Villa down near the Ferry Building, I figured this new Cancun location might be a less dive-worthy joint and/or attract an upscale, non-neighborhood crowd.

Excuse me - but what crack was I smoking, again?

On my visit, Taqueria Cancun's crowd was predominantly working class, and to a certain extent, the up-to-no-good class - or what a hyper-PC acquaintance of mine would consider "survivors" of the "street economy".

During the brief time Mark and I spent eating there, the crowd ranged from a table of young and streetwise latinas; a DPW worker sneaking in some break time; a young, scowling, wheelchair-bound guy (totally hit in a drive-by, I'm sure); an uncomfortable looking 30-something white guy in a suit; a bike messenger who looked oddly familiar; a security guard/serial killer; a couple of giggling hipster girls; a guy who's probably uttered more than once the words "don't hate the playa, hate the game"; and a skanky, crazy guy whose face had been recently punched black and blue, and who was immediately told to leave upon being noticed by the guy behind the counter.

Inside, there's not much room to move around or sit down. The few tables that exist line the wall of this narrow, one-room dive leaving very little space between the counter and the line of customers ordering and waiting for their food.

From the front of the dive, directly back to the door with a "NO RESTROOM!" sign above it, the entire place is one, small, open space; the only divide between you and the guy making your food being the counter itself.

Luckily having the opportunity to visit more than a few upscale, trendy restaurants in my day, I'm pretty familiar with the "open kitchen" concept. However, Taqueria Cancun takes this concept to an absurd extreme. We were sitting so close to the dishwashing action, I think my glasses steamed up a little. Any closer and we would've had dishpan hands.

The place basically works best as a take out place, and for the most part, that's the business they were doing. Up front, next to the window, a guy was chopping freshly roasted pork and carne asada, while another lurked unseen behind a range hood. In addition, there was a guy taking and making orders and another working as back up – washing the dishes when things got slow.

Mark was an excellent Taqueria Cancun dining partner, especially since he lives right around the corner and Cancun is one of his regular haunts. When a guy like this recommends the al Pastor, you don't give lip, other than "I'll have the Wetback Burrito, al Pastor."


Something about asking for a "wetback burrito" from a taqueria worker who may or may not have once dipped his gams in the Rio Bravo del Norte is a little unsettling, especially to a fragile, politically-correct gabacho like myself.

For a second, I thought about ordering the "er, uh, the you know, ahem, w-e-t back burrito", but I just bucked up and said what I wanted, wetback and all. At that point, the guy behind the counter, apparently not amused with my reluctance, gave me a look so cold it could freeze blood.

I know he was thinking "Oh yeah? A wetback huh? Let's see who's a wetback after I bitch-slap your punk ass."

I just know it.

Mark had ordered a regular al Pastor burrito that had been grilled and then wrapped in aluminum foil, and both of us were chomping away on the tasty tortilla chips, guacamole, and salsa, but I was completely focused on this "wetback" burrito.

He was filling my brain with stories of going to diners with his grandparents as a child and of San Francisco dives from the 70s and 80s that have long since passed but, honestly, it was really hard to concentrate with this radiant, tasty burrito sitting before me - and I speak to you as someone completely burrito-jaded (though probably not as much as this guy and these people).

Still, if all insulting stereotypes tasted this good, I would be one regular offensive eating motherfucker.

Nothing could go better with this food other than a nice cool agua frescas, and this sweet, refreshing cantaloupe drink was a perfect sidekick to the melange of flavors set before us.

True to Mark's word, the al Pastor burrito (with beans, rice, onions, and salsa) was damn good and the addition of the toppings (enchilada sauce, green salsa, melted cheese, sour cream, and more salsa) made this burrito to die for.

Or at least suffer a heatstroke.

Seriously, if this is what illegal immigration tastes like, why are we even having this "debate"?

Ya basta, fools!

Open those borders already and get your ass to Taqueria Cancun, pronto!



At 3:26 AM, Blogger sparky said...

Hi Kevin,

I had a GREAT time over dinner and our walk south of Market. I'm really looking forward to dinner at Mimi's with you (mmmmm, French fries...).

I also want to weigh in with some thoughts about the commonality of our work. One of the reasons I find "Dive" so engaging (besides my life-long love of diner food), is that your point of view is so humanistic. It takes a populist to find beauty in the working class and, let's face it, your love of dives goes much deeper than the mere fascination of an outsider looking in. You love not just the food, but the total experience; the people, the place, and the relationship of each to the other. Your compassion elevates what you write about; human interest lies at the heart of your vision and your writing. Similarly, I am seeing humanity in the signs and buildings I photograph; my subject matter is metaphorical. A desire to share what I feel is the driving force behind my work. Your muse, I think, is akin to mine.

What do you think?

Are we on for Mimi's next Sunday?


At 8:54 AM, Blogger Dive said...

Awwww, shucks!

Thanks Mark!

Mimi's next Sunday? You're on!


At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Kevin,

god, I haven't had a good burrito in ages. There's a place around the corner that could be construed as "divetastic," which I might need to hit up now.

anyway, we finally went and checked out Chicago Philly Steak (with Lemonade) for ourselves, and took some pictures, if you're interested.

ps. that photo by Mark Ellinger is gorgeous; it's everything that I love about S.F. :)


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