As much as festivals In Mexico mark the rhythm of the yearly calender (follow this column for recipes that mark the various Mexican holidays, also see links at the bottom of this page), each with their requisite food and drink, “the daily meals are the focal point around which la vida cotidiana – everyday life – revolve”, according to Mexican food writer Karen Hurch Graber. “Mealtimes, and especially the main meal of the day, are treated as special intervals, to be approached with relish and respect for the work that went into their preparation”. In Mexico, there are meals, lights meals, main meals, snack breaks, small bites, each with its typical food and time…”the street food menu has its own temporal rhythm, just a restaurant would serve different foods at different times of day” from Eating the Street: An Edible Geography.
In the first part of this series, we’ll look at desayuno an early, light breakfast, often just coffee and pan dulce or atole and a torta de tamal. Next time you plan a trip to San Francisco’s Mission District, why not go early, and enjoy your breakfast Mexican style at one of several destinations.
If you opt for coffee and pan dulce, your destination is La Mexicana on 24th just off the corner of York (named Best Mexican Bakery in my Guide to the Mission’s Panaderias). If you’ve never done this, stepped into one of the various panaderias or Mexican bakeries in the Mission, go! Its fun… you grab a tray, a pair of tongs and you walk around the shop picking from trays of freshly baked pastries, some of which resemble turtles or snails (don’t even think about the price, they are all really cheap, from $.75 to maybe $2.50, if that much) and then you bring your tray to the cashier, just like the bakeries in Mexico. Don’t forget to get your cup of cafe con canela, traditional Mexican-style coffee brewed with cinnamon sticks. At Tres Señoritas Gourmet, we prepare ours the traditional way in a clay pot or olla (read how to make this here) to impart extra flavor. Start your day the way they do in Mexico, with a pile of pastries and cafe al la olla.… delicious!
The best known and oldest Mexican breakfast item is, of course, the tamale, (Spanish: tamal, from Nahuatl: tamalli) a traditional Mexican “comfort food” made of masa steamed or boiled in a plantain or banana leaf wrapper or corn husk (these are discarded before eaten) or, more recently, in paper. Tamales originated in Aztec and Maya civilizations as early as 8000 to 5000 BC.The Olmeca and Tolteca before them used tamales as a portable food, often to support their armies but also for hunters and travelers. There have also been reports of tamal use in the Inca Empire long before the Spanish visited the new world. Tamales were one of the staples found by the Spanish Conquistadors when they first arrived in Mexico and were soon widely spread throughout their other colonies. Tamales are said to have been as ubiquitous and varied as the sandwich is today. (Wiki)
Looking for a breakfast of tamales and atole (thick, sweet, flavored corn beverage, served piping hot, see recipe)? The best stop for these in SF is a puesto or Mexican street food stand on the corner of 21st and Florida St., run by Doña Teres. A favorite of the local immigrant population, little English is spoken. Order your tamale of choice, usually serve as a torta, that is, in the middle of a bolillo or Mexican bread roll, with or without salsa, al estylo de DF (or the way they do it in Mexico City). For afilling and delicious breakfast well under $5, choose between pollo (chicken), puerco (pork), or rajas con queso (strips of poblano chiles with cheese; and Atole Champurado (a mild chocholate flavor), de Fresas (strawberry) of Canela (cinnamon). Much as in Mexico, “the street food menu has its own temporal rhythm, just a restaurant would serve different foods at different times of day” from Eating the Street: An Edible Geography.
Looking to eat your tamales seated, in a restaurant? Then Roosevelt Tamale Parlor at 2817-24th Street (near Alabama) is the place. A San Francisco landmark (the original Roosevelt’s was founded in 1919 in the same locale), photos of old San Francisco and long-gone staff line the walls while the booths and decor have a definite old-school feel. All tamales are made with organic, stone-ground corn and there is variety: round tamales, black bean tamales served in a corn husk, sweet corn tamales (called canarios in Mexico for their pale yellow color) and plenty of options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike. Expect to pay more than you would at the aforementioned puesto, though. A single tamale plate is runs from $7.95-8.95, while a double starts at $11.45. Take-out by the dozen is the way to go if you are looking for good, inexpensive food; for $29-42 (half-dozen from $16), sauce is sold separately. Still, for less than $4/person, this is a bargain breakfast for a crowd!