The Burrito Prince of Folsom Street, Part 2 - Flashback: Fitz's Offer
Fitz looked like what’s-his-face, Frankie thought, the guy on TV, in the chef’s jacket that looked like it never got sweated in but came from the dry cleaner’s anyway, crisp like the five-dollar bill your tia goes to the bank to get to give you on your First Holy Communion.
Frankie was sitting in the Mexican white pigskin barrel chair—not so much sitting as sucked into—at the best table at ZITACUARO, a place on Divis he’d heard about but never actually been, as Fitz—Fitz of the million goddamn Insta followers, the most talked-up chef in San Francisco (maybe the country?), who made fucking Anthony Bourdain cry on TV when he served him chileajo like they never make it anywhere but in that place owned by a broke-down old luchador in Huajuapan de León—as Fitz set down a huge cazuela of what looked like birria, black-red and shiny. Agreeing to come here to talk to Fitz suddenly seemed to Frankie like a mistake. Why did he listen to Jared, Fitz’s lawyer, now standing across the table in a shiny suit, leaning in to get the perfect overhead shot.
Fitz named ZITACUARO (always in all caps—any editor who resisted got an immediate email from Fitz’s PR company, enforcing the caps-lock rule) for the town in the Michoacan highlands where Diana Kennedy, the English lady who was the first—ever!—to write about regional Mexican food, has her rancho. Fitz showed up there one day after culinary school, basically told her he’d do anything to apprentice with her. She scowled, flashed her famous temper, sent him away every time he walked through her gate, but he broke her down with his charm and his persistence. She took him on. She taught him. Everything.
ZITACUARO had been called the first truly authentic Mexican restaurant in the U.S. Bon Appétit named it the Best New Restaurant in America—twice—after a total menu revamp in year two. The powerful critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Stanton Wilson, wrote that, after despairing of ever finding worthy Mexican food in a nation of cheap taco trucks and dirty burrito parlors, he had his faith restored one night at a sort of Oaxacan omakase pop-up.
Lucky Peach profiled Fitz’s chef de cuisine, the inked Death Metal–loving Billy Cruz, the dude who turned Mission Chinese around after the New York Times zero-starred it and left it for dead. Before ZITACUARO opened, Fitz took Billy on a three-month spiritual crawl through Mexico, eating street tacos from Baja to Chiapas, getting buzzed on peyote tea, co-experiencing the pain of matching tap tattoos of Centeotl, Aztec god of corn. They basically took that mutation serum like that dude in Deadpool, only what Fitz and Billy turned into were gods of authentic Mexican food.
“There you go, dude,” Fitz said, slapping Frankie’s shoulder after setting down the cazuela. “Best birria in America—they don’t even make it like this in Mexico anymore. Pastured Spanish scrub goats raised for us out in West Marin; heirloom taviche chiles grown on our milpa over in Solano—Billy and me had to fuckin’ smuggle the seeds through SFO in a baggie stuffed in our underwear—in our balls, dude! I’m serious! This is the most correct Jalisco Altos Norte birria probably, I’d say, left on the planet. All those sweet old abuelas down there, all they love anymore is KFC and Big Macs, bless their hearts, ha-ha! Even Bayless isn’t doing anything as authentically, regionally Mexican as this right here.”
Jared, who’d probably heard all of this half a dozen times before, was shaking his head like it was brand-new information.
“Incredible, Fitz,” Jared said. “In-fucking-credible. You are the man.”
Frankie was fucked. Also, Fitz’s birria, he had to admit, was amazing. He wanted to cry, too, just like Bourdain. But Frankie knew he had to keep his head. He was facing the hardest decision in his 45 years on this planet, specifically the Mission.
Should he sell El Muelle—the taqueria on Folsom his father, Don Rafael, left him when he died? Cash out, courtesy of Fitz, and leave the city, like a lot of people he grew up with, take the money and go to San Diego? Buy a little place with dollars, hit the refresh button and start clean?
Jared already told Frankie the concept Fitz had in mind for the El Muelle space: a café with a sexy, re-imagined menu of foods the Mexican dons ate in early California, with a modern NorCal twist, to be called Providencia. Fitz wanted to bring an authentic taste of the Mission to, well…the Mission.
Maybe the neighborhood belonged to guys like Fitz now anyway. It was a place Frankie struggled, more and more, to recognize: tech buses like floating condos on 24th Street, the people from who-knows-where moving into apartments his father’s friends have done flash makeovers on, putting in granite counters and walls to make an extra bedroom for another one of these tech kids working in Mountain View, charge them six grand a month.
Drive down Valencia and you don’t even have to lower your window to smell the money fumes seeping in like pot-shop kush—the people coming from New York or Paris or fuck-knows -where, dressed like it’s Melrose down in L.A., to eat bowls of tofu and fancy leaves he couldn’t even name, at a dinner that cost what used to be a whole month’s rent for a decent room on Mission. One dinner! Most of the time Frankie felt like the life he knew was gone—the life of hanging with the families after St. Peter’s mass, of skipping out with your cousin to go halves on a dime bag in Dolores when it was only homies and tweakers. The city had edges then, clean lines that kept people in neighborhoods everybody knew the rules in.
Don Rafael, his father, was different—he had his dream of El Muelle as a place where lines blurred and the city could come together, like the great pier it was named for, a drop-off spot for every kind of soul, arriving together to build a new city at the edge of the great ocean. Well, Frankie’s papa was nothing if not naïve—no wonder Jesus wanted him to come hang in heaven. El Muelle’s had been his dad’s dream for 40 years; he kept it alive for Frankie, even after his mom moved to Fresno to live with her sister, his Tia Connie. Frankie had seen it on the best burrito lists, saw the lines shrink, watched as shit wore out and broke, never felt like he wanted—ever!—to do nothing wrong while the eyes of his father’s ghost were glued on him, like the hooded eyes of that Saint Francis statue out in front of City College. Nothing happens without the eyes of the dead seeing it.
Even when he met Noel, and the first time they got close together on that bench in McLaren Park and Noel was shaking so hard because of the closeness, a thing Don Rafael would turn his face from, Frankie knew deep inside him that Jesus wouldn’t. Noel had those eyes—them deep, Daly City Filipino–boy eyes you felt like you could sink into and just forget the things that ever made you pissed off or ashamed about. Eyes that gave you peace.
And even though Frankie made sure they saw each other officially on the DL, Noel, in those private times, wasn’t enough to fix the busted things in Frankie’s soul. The city had gone from SF loco to really fucking insane: the old families sold out, some goat-headed old-timers hung on, telling him it’s better, the dollar you make on a burrito and can hold in your hand, than the million on paper some shitbag in a suit shows you.
But when the lawyer (some güero named “Jared,” for fuck’s sake) from Cabrillo Capital came in to El Muelle one day, asked to see Frankie and have him join him as he ate lunch, a carnitas super and a Jarrito (mango), and talked about his client who’d ALWAYS been interested in his dad’s space—totally, completely in awe of the space, and how he’d respect and preserve it, the way Don Rafael would have wanted—well, Frankie listened. He sat with “Jared.” He said he’d meet his client, Fitz—Drew Fitzgerald, the chef everybody wanted to selfie with, or say they saw, or even stand in the infamous long lines outside ZITACUARO just to score a table and eat his food.
Frankie had eaten every last bit of the birria on his plate—wiped up every trace of the black-red sauce with a tortilla made of masa milled from heirloom corn—when Billy Cruz arrived at the table, bearing another cazuela, a caldo of dried fish.
But Frankie was already thinking about San Diego, and the beach, and maybe someday Noel might even want to move there, where the only eyes still alive to see them would be the ones belonging to strangers.
Editors note: part three of the Burrito Prince of Folsom Street will be published in the Summer 2017 issue.
The Burrito Prince of Folsom Street, part 2: Fitz's Offer was published in the Spring 2017 issue. © 2017 Edible San Francisco. Illustrations © 2017 Dan Bransfield.