Tour the cafes of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district with Yemeni coffee expert Mokhtar Alkhanshali

Join us for Tag Along, where local writers, artists, food authorities and celebrities lead us to the best food and drink from their favorite Bay Area neighborhoods.

After climbing the hill out of the Tenderloin, where he grew up, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, then a teenager, gazed out the huge bay windows of the Lamborghini dealership (although these days the space is home to Tesla) and saw the life he wanted . And he succeeded. He started the Port of Mokha coffee company and is the first person to sell specialty Yemeni coffee in Blue Bottle cafes – for the low price of $16 a cup.

Alkhanshali is American of Yemeni descent, and when his parents spotted him on a rocky path, they sent him to his grandparents’ farm in Yemen to get out of the madness of the city. He is immortalized in Dave Eggers’ book Monk of Mokha and now jets around the world are working on various projects, reviewing friends’ coffee businesses and promoting Yemen’s first-ever national coffee auction with his non-profit organization, the Mocha Institute. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like his old neighborhood. “He always gets a bad rap,” says Alkhanshali. “It’s a beautiful, ugly, wonderful, horrible, incredible place. It’s a mixture of these dialectical terms, but, for me, growing up, it was magical.

Alkhanshali posing with some of his childhood heroes, members of Service Employees International Union Local 87.
Patricia Chang

Thinking of the Tenderloin, Alkhanshali points out that people often overlook the approximately 4,000 children who live in the neighborhood. Growing up, her friends were a diverse mix of Vietnamese, Yemeni, and African Americans. He received advice on how to turn a dollar into two from sex workers, nonprofits and drug dealers, and he remembers people regularly greeting their neighbors. He liked to enjoy the intense, dark aromas of Angel Café & Deli on Geary – and although he didn’t drink coffee at the time, he knew that if and when he did, he would want it. do there.

But the neighborhood was also hampered by endemic inequalities and still is today; since December 2021, there have been 48 citations for selling drugs in the neighborhood. “We are all products of our environments, says Alkhanshali. “But it was in the United States that I was taught that people of color have limited options.” Alkhanshali likes to see the Tenderloin shine, especially given its wealthy Yemeni community and outstanding architecture and murals. In this Tag Along, he took Eater SF to six cafés and bakeries, with an honorable mention at Maison Danel – the Parisian-inspired café is in the same building where Alkhanshali once lived. (He says it used to be a porn store.) Read on for a coffee tour highlighting local Tenderloin shops, strong coffee, and a commitment to quality.

Fluid coffee cooperative

332 Golden Gate Avenue

Alkhanshali wanted to start at La Cocina Municipal Market because he says the immigrant business incubator is a sign of the new class of entrepreneurs who are uplifting San Francisco‘s underrepresented communities. Fluid Coffee Cooperative is therefore, for Alkhanshali, exactly what the city needs – a place where young local makers show up in a big way. JoJo Ty, one of the co-owners and resident “coffee dad”, joined Alkhanshali to discuss the “community college cocktail party” which they both attended. Ty grew up as a Filipino trans child in the Excelsior neighborhood and says he feels less alone after hearing Alkhanshali’s story. Co-founder Santana Tapia also joined us for a cuppa, as Alkhanshali brewed Yemeni coffee he’d sent via Uber from San Jose. It was the first time this coffee had been served in the United States, and it had the apricot flavor, acidity, and shine ringing in the teeth.

Two people with a tray of pink coffee cups.

Alkhanshali and JoJo Ty, one of the co-owners of Fluid Coffee Cooperative, serve cups of Yemeni coffee.
Patricia Chang

Two people with coffee cups in their hands.

JoJo Ty ​​and Santana Tapia discuss the merits of specialty coffee at La Cocina Municipal Market.
Patricia Chang

Arsicault

87 McAllister Street

Alkhanshali couldn’t contain his pride as we walked towards Arsicault, fainting at the thought of a Enjoy your meal-a recognized bakery would open on McAllister Street. Along the way, he ran into union leaders from Service Employees International Union Local 87. “These guys were my heroes growing up,” says Alkhanshali. At Arsicault, we dug into croissants, kouign amann with raisins, and roasted coffee in a well-lit space filled with the smell of browned butter. Asked about opening up in the oft-rejected neighborhood, Arsicault owner Armando Lacayo, who is both Nicaraguan and French, says he wouldn’t want anyone not venturing into the Tenderloin to try. his creations. (Not a huge deal for Lacayo fans considering the original location is in the more accessible Richmond district.) “It’s not an upscale neighborhood,” Lacayo says. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t do what you love.”

Two men photographing croissants.

Alkhanshali and Armando Lacayo, the owner of Arsicault, get shot for the Gram.
Patricia Chang

A cross section of a croissant held on a knife.

Arsicault croissants are a favorite of bakers across the country.
Patricia Chang

Philz

399 Golden Gate Avenue

You haven’t walked on a San Francisco sidewalk until you’ve walked with a Philz mint mojito latte in your hand. That’s Alkhanshali’s opinion, anyway, since Philz is a San Francisco institution; it was started in the Mission in 2003 by Phil Jaber, who left Palestine for the United States at the age of 12 and built a coffee empire from the ground up (and grinds). “It’s a dessert,” Alkhanshali says of the frozen drink. Compared to some of the McCafe-esque lattes these days, this drink is a refreshing zip of sugar and caffeine for around $4.50, a creamy peppermint blur to make Cary Grant jealous.

A man with a cup of coffee in a cafe.

The decadent mint mojito latte is an old-time treat for Alkhanshali.
Patricia Chang

Back kitchen

687 Geary Street

Just down the street from Angel Café, Alkhanshali heads to this artisan cafe. He walks the streets and shakes hands with sleeping baristas and coffee drinkers as if he were the ambassador of the Tenderloin (and Yemen simultaneously). Each conversation is an opportunity for him to brief aspiring Yemeni coffee lovers. Luckily for him, the team at Scullery, a Scandinavian woodshed-like cafe popping up out of the blue, is all on board with the concept. The shop is ultra-small, just a few stools and two seats outside, but the cafe takes center stage in the small scene. Andre, a chipper, bearded barista, seems fully confident whipping up an oat milk twist on a Vietnamese coffee or pulling a divine shot on the Seattle-made Slayer espresso machine. This multi-roaster (a store that showcases other coffees rather than roasting their own) shows native Oakland beans, does an avocado toast, and just might be a destination for Mokha Port coffee someday, if Alkhanshali has anything to do with it. “I never expected to see a Slayer in the Tenderloin.” Alkhanshali sighs.

Two men shake hands in a Tenderloin cafe.

As friendly as a politician and a million times less questionable, Alkhanshali shakes hands with a barista in Scullery.
Patricia Chang

Jane the bakery

925 Larkin Street

The end of the tour is an emotional experience. We’re into our caffeinated madness, of course, but Jane the Bakery brought up different memories for Alkhanshali. He grew up running down Cedar Street to buy goods for his mother and seeing such a colorful and vibrant store next to where he once picked asparagus is a bit of a trip. Now he can order a turnover of elote, oozing with cotija and lime, on the same block where he once blew himself up. The store features Equator Coffees — touted as California’s first queer female-owned coffee roaster — and has a pleasant, well-lit dining area filled with laughter and music. Gentrification doesn’t seem to cross Alkhanshali’s mind. He’s too busy smiling and wondering how more of his neighborhood residents can get a taste of this increased activity. “I saw so much violence in these streets,” says Alkhanshali. “Having bitter moments makes it possible to enjoy sweet moments.”

A man pointing to a bag of coffee.

Nervous on the final leg of the trip, Alkhanshali rattles off notes about Ecuador’s coffees.
Patricia Chang

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