When I decided to search for my first home, it quickly became clear that I would be unable to buy a place with the amenities I was craving in an established, cool neighborhood. I searched through the Mission, Western Addition, and Hayes Valley for a pad within my price range that included parking, a yard for the dogs, and good closet space (although I already had a fabulous little boutique, BellJar, to live out my collecting obsession, my purchases were still overflowing into my home). The results were bleak.
I started exploring other options. The Sunset? No one would ever accuse me of being a beach girl. Bay View? Too isolated. Then I found the Excelsior. Near a huge, gorgeous park? Check. Streets named after European destinations? Check. Located on a hill with a view of the city and a straight shot into the Mission? Check. This would be my new hood.
I’m not going to lie. There was an adjustment period. For the first time since living in San Francisco I longed to see a fixed gear bike or a tattooed girl walking down the street. Then again, I now had an entire extra room dedicated to my wardrobe and an in-law apartment I could use to house my records. I began telling myself, “It’s all about the Excelsior; everyone else just hasn’t figured it out yet!”
It’s been six years since I bought my place, and I’ve realized the Excelsior has all the makings of an ultrahip neighborhood, without the crowds.
I adore shopping for forgotten treasures, so imagine my delight when I realized how close the Alemany Flea Market was to my new house. Although it’s a pint-sized affair, the vendor’s prices are much lower than at larger events. This flea market also happens every weekend, so what it lacks in size it makes up for in frequency.
On a recent Sunday, I started scouring the Alemany lot at 7 a.m. I have a sixth sense for sniffing out the coolest vintage items, and I walked immediately over to a cataloged butterfly collection stored in an old curiosity file. Sadly, the vendor’s price was completely out of my range. I tried to bargain, but he held firm. My heart broke as I walked away.
I ventured on and found the cutest Danish bench seat, tufted in just the right shade of blue fabric for my bedroom. The seller had mostly junky furniture from the ’70s and ’80s, and I guessed this would work in my favor. I’d decided $100 was my max, so when the vendor set his price at $75, I almost jumped up and down with excitement. I concealed my glee, though – you have to bargain with a poker face, that’s half the fun – and gave a counter bid. We settled on $60 and I walked away a little less heartbroken about losing out on my little winged friends.
Treasure hunting works up a girl’s appetite, so I decided my next stop would be for food. Brunch places are definitely lacking in my hood, but after a long morning of wheeling and dealing, I was craving a breakfast burrito, so I headed over to Taqueria Guadalajara.
I used to be a loyal Cancun gal, but after moving to the Excelsior, I am now a bona fide Taqueria Guadalajara enthusiast. Its tacos are simple, but the ingredients are fresh and yummy and the tamales are so good I dream about them. It’s also got an amazing salsa bar. I’m particularly obsessed with the habanero sauce, despite its intense heat. I’d yet to try the breakfast burrito, though, so this was my chance.
When I walked in, the place was packed with families in dressy Sunday attire. They were ordering large amounts of food and chatting loudly, making for a festive scene.
When the breakfast burrito arrived, I took one bite and kicked myself for having waited so long to order from here. Omigod, it was so amazing – filled with steaming hot chorizo, potato, and fresh egg.
I shared a table with two teenage girls in rhinestone appliqué jeans. We talked about our dogs; they had pit bulls too. They told me about an area within Crocker Amazon Park that has a large pond where dogs are allowed to swim. I decided this would be the third stop on my Sunday agenda and rushed home to fetch my dogs, Piglet and Violet.
Crocker Amazon is huge and a bit unkempt, but that’s what I like about the park. When you’re deep in the greenery, it’s hard to believe you’re still in San Francisco. I followed the girls’ directions up Persia Avenue and found an open field with a pack of dogs frolicking around. The pups and I crossed the field in search of a trail that wound through the trees. About a quarter of a mile in, we stumbled upon the most charming little pond.
Piglet and Violet chased a flock of cunning ducks for a while. On our walk back through the dense trees, I discovered the tiniest clearing with an amazing view of downtown. It was so peaceful there that this particular trail has now become part of my ritual morning walk.
While I love the quiet, spacious aspects of the Excelsior, my little hood has plenty to offer on nights when I’m itching to get out and don’t want to head deep into the city. In its heyday, the Excelsior was a place for Italian and Irish families, and that spirit lives on in quirky time capsules offering great eats and cocktails.
On a Tuesday after work, I invited two fabulous friends to the Excelsior for a night out. Our first stop was Little Joe's Pizzeria, the most amazing ’60s throwback in our fair city. Its décor alone does it for me. Black vinyl booths are couched against red-flocked walls and black-tufted doors. Two Italian guys, neither of whom is named Joe, stood proudly behind the counter. They slightly resembled Goodfellas extras and greeted us good-heartedly as we walked through the door.
We, of course, ordered the pizza, my favorite, with pineapple and jalapeño toppings. The pie is pretty standard – cheesy, hot, and tasty – and at $15.99 for a medium, it’s also a really great deal. We ordered a carafe of the house wine for the price of a glass at most places (plus, I dig a place that offers carafes). We also enjoyed the spaghetti marinara – it’s simple and tastes fresh, and the pasta is cooked perfectly al dente.
Being the only customers in the joint at the time, we took the opportunity to stage an impromptu photo shoot, posing proudly in fancy frocks against the decadent decor. It made sense that things were a little quiet – it was 9 p.m. on a Tuesday – but I couldn’t help thinking that if Little Joe's Pizzeria were located in a different neighborhood it would be packed with hipsters every single night.
We took advantage of our private dining room at Little Joe's and talked loudly about our favorite topics: boys, dating in San Francisco, and how fabulous we looked in our fancy outfits. Our anonymity was short-lived, however, as we headed over to the local dive bar, Broken Record, for a nightcap, and ran into in-the-know friends along the way.
We walked into Broken Record and immediately dominated the pool table – poorly, I might add – before moving on to the dartboard. The latter is conveniently located next to the bar, which offers a huge wall of my favorite spirit, whiskey. Nero the bartender has been with the establishment from the get-go and concocts a mean fancy cocktail. I asked him to make me his signature whiskey drink – a Sazerac, which also happens to be my favorite drink.
Broken Record has all the allure of a casual, lowbrow bar, but its whiskey selection rivals any joint in the city and the bartenders are top-notch. When I finished my Sazerac, Nero suggested a glass of Knappogue Castle 1950 – but at $300 a shot, I frugally stuck with my Mitcher’s.
If you arrive hungry, the bar serves soul food that comes highly recommended. Nero proudly explained that Broken Record will be featured in an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives , hosted by Guy Fieri. I still have to try the sweet potato tater tots, as well as the hamburger – the meat is ground fresh daily, with bacon added.
As we finished our cocktails, I remembered how many of my friends had complained when I first moved here that the Excelsior was too out of the way. But in true pioneering fashion, I held fast to my new adventure, and my Excelsior posse has been slowly growing larger.
My friends aren’t the only ones enjoying our hidden neighborhood secrets, either. Lately I’ve spied a few tattooed girls and boys on fixies. The Excelsior secret seems to be getting out.
Want to experience a little of that Excelsior spirit? Mosey on up to the Alemany Flea Market armed with your best poker face and try your luck at bargaining. (Aim low so you can meet the seller in the middle.) Then grab a breakfast burrito from Taqueria Guadalajara with a side of the habanero, and hit the trails at Crocker Amazon Park. End your day with pizza at Little Joe's Pizzeria. Not in the mood for Italian? Try the chile relleno . (Who knew Italians could serve up great Mexican?) And if you get thirsty out in the Excelsior, Broken Record will surely wet your whistle with its impressive whiskey selection.