The Nite Owl: Taquería Vallarta, No. 2
We’ve had a lot of these nights as of late, where warm days unfold into breezy, not-quite cold nights, the familiar summertime fog scattering to the burning plains in the east. My button-down is wet down my back and under my arms with the usual accompanying fragrance as I hustle myself up 17th Street, away from the dank, boozy saturation of the 500 Club. The bar is the usual tabulation site of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, and it’s already cresting towards midnight when we finally finish our contentious and very tight endorsement vote. I’m walking at a fair clip so I can get to the bank and then, the Safeway, get some food and get the fuck to bed.
Bank errand is accomplished as I meander through the ambling boys and men of Castro Street. I hear a friendly holler from my friend Miguel, who wants me to join him in a beer at 440 and talk plans, but my mood and dropping blood sugar make me think alcohol a bad idea and I beg off with a kiss and promise of future brewskies.
My hunger is reaching a fever pitch as I arrive at the Church & Market Safeway and see that it is closed until 6 a.m for repairs. My world has been steadily shedding constants in the past months, and it would seem this 24-hour standby is only the latest betrayal. I seethe at the poor old man whose duty it is to inform the drunks and graveyarders of this sobering news as he stands uncomfortably in his incongruous Deputy Fred uniform.
In my delirium I feel like getting on the 22-Fillmore is my best option, which I realize is about the only state in which that particular line ever sounds like the best option. I disembark at Mission Street and across the plaza and its wrought iron papel picados is my early morning salvation: Taquería Vallarta.
I’m not sure what number in the Vallarta chain this is, or if the three taco stands are even still connected. It lacks the late night traffic and bubbly atmosphere of the 24th Street locale and the “neighborhoodiness” of the Excelsior outpost. It always has sort of felt not unlike one of those taquerías where an overnight bus stops in the middle of nowhere, or one that sits next to one of the more far flung metro stops in DF.
The women who run this place are half asleep and understandably eyeball anyone who walks through the door in this corner of the city with caution. The woman in charge of the abandoned puesto near the door shuffles over to her charges and musters me a weak smile as she plunks out the barbacoa and lengua I ordered.
The chile has clearly seen better hours, as that most of it has separated and congealed into camps at the edges of the once-full basins. It seems like something I should pass on, but tacos without chile is sacrilege and I need something to make me feel alive right now.
As I wait for my pitiful basket of totopos and turn to pay for the tacos (now taunting me with their drippy gaminess), some clown in ill-fitting clothes is grilling the woman behind the counter as to why breakfast is not served after three, or some such bullshit. The woman neither knows, nor cares and he eventually stomps off, fuming into whatever gringo mess he ordered.
As, I sink my teeth into the meat that offers no struggle, I gradually begin to regain semblance of my surroundings. I’ve not often patronized this particular Vallarta, but remember it fondly for its tripindicular renderings of Mexican history with visits from what appears to be Christ/ Quetzalcoatl and flying saucers who instruct la raza in mathematics, which leads me to think the artist may have been, in turn, instructed by the Mormons.
As my neurons coalesce, I gaze out onto the street and have a ringside view of the site of the proposed monster that is to rise at these hysteric crossroads. The crossroads of the hysterical ramblings of someone losing their shit in the stairwell of BART, the hysteric pleas of underpaid and overworked families getting kicked onto the street, the hysterical ground that can’t stop moving beneath us, the hysteria of developers funneling money into City Hall, the hysteria inside the head of the white man to my left who can’t understand why breakfast can’t be made available on his demand.
When I think about it, most visits here have been less than smooth. Outside of maybe once, most seem to be late nights filled with loose cannons and fights. Tonight is really no different. My journey began at an HMDC meeting where a histrionic froth ensued after the final vote, which I thankfully escaped.
There’s always some old white man (or men) who seems to think he knows what’s best for people of colour at these clambakes. Actually, there’s a lot of those in San Francisco these days, period. It’s always amusing having old white men tell you they know what’s best for you…’til it’s not. I would say the amusement is pretty one-sided in San Francisco at this point.
I suppose that’s why I do this, politics are politics, and it feels good to be part of something you believe in, even if it’s messy and ridiculous sometimes.
Slowly the lather and epithets dissolve with every unctuous bite and the sting of the chile sends pleasing little endorphins into my cobwebbed skull. Time to sleep.
I walk out onto the plaza, my tummy full, and the air is still. Walgreen’s and Burger King slump defeatedly across the street as if already acquiescing to the monster. Apparently the monster is what’s best for us too. Like our own mini-Tlatelolco it will be another post-modern band-aid that offers promises of integration and rejuvenation through a hot wealth injection- a cortisone shot into this intersection of hysterias and the cramping, earthen river on which it sits.
In the end, I guess shots and tacos can both be temporary fixes.
But tacos taste better and aren’t quite as invasive. Let’s stick to tacos.
Taquería Vallarta (No. 2?)
2022 Mission Street (@ 16th Street)
Hours vary- I’ve personally been here as late as 2 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on the weekend.- S.T.