New Map Captures Immigrant Influences on Food
Portside Date:
Author: Aviva Bechky
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San Francisco Chronicle

Italian immigrants on Fisherman’s Wharf created cioppino to use up leftover seafood. Peruvian traders and miners brought pisco to the Bay Area during the Gold Rush and spurred the development of pisco punch. A Vietnamese chef in San Francisco set out to make her own version of creamy pasta and invented garlic noodles. 

Gabrielle Santas has been collecting stories like these, both the recent and the over-a-century-old. The director of research and production at the California Migration Museum, Santas set out in January to map the ways in which immigration impacted the local food scene.

“San Francisco food is these dishes,” she said, pointing to examples such as the garlic noodles. “They really were fundamentally created right in the city.”

Now, the tales of the restaurants she researched are available for all to hear via the Melting Spots map, which premiered June 5. The interactive online project features 38 short audio stories from food businesses around San Francisco that have been shaped by immigrants such as Sam Wo Restaurant, Anchor Oyster Bar and Beit Rima. It’s the latest exhibit by the California Migration Museum, a digital-only museum based in San Francisco that creates walking tours and audio guides about immigration. 

“It just felt like a wonderful way to tell the stories of everyday human life across nearly two centuries of San Franciscans deciding what to eat,” said Katy Long, the museum’s founder and director.

Long, a historian who’s researched immigration, first came up with the idea of the museum in late 2020. Sitting at home as wildfires painted the sky an apocalyptic orange, she thought, “What can I do here that is something meaningful?”

She settled on a public storytelling project. The next year, work on the museum got off the ground. Its mission: showing how migration has shaped everything around us. 

From the start, Long thought an exhibit on food would suit that goal well. She’s from the United Kingdom and knows firsthand how many memories foods from home can evoke. (She always seeks out marmite when she goes back.) She wanted to explore what those memories, both personal and familial, looked like for other San Franciscans.

“Food is so often a gateway to understanding where people have come from,” Long said. “It’s this kind of big portal to our memories.”

So in January, staff members at the California Migration Museum started dedicating themselves to researching San Francisco food history. They knew they couldn’t highlight every immigrant story. Instead, they tried to find a smattering of restaurants that got their start at different times and serve foods from around the world — places that might be representative of the city’s cuisine.

The city’s first H Mart, the Yank Sing dim sum carts, Liguria Bakery’s focaccia — they’re all included. So are the stories of the fortune cookie’s creation at the Japanese Tea Garden, the invention of the Mission burrito at El Faro and the popularization of boba at Wonderful Foods.

Mandalay, which received an America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation this year, makes the list too. When it opened in 1984, it offered a rare place to order Burmese food, including the tea leaf salad highlighted in Melting Spots.

Today, plenty of Burmese restaurants populate the Bay Area, but Mandalay is the oldest of them and one of the most celebrated. Now, said co-owner and manager Kevin Chen, it’s important to preserve the story of Mandalay’s role in spurring the growth of local Burmese food.

“The city needs this kind of migration history,” he said.

And to Santas, telling those stories of migration through food is especially powerful because it helps challenge the typical narratives she sees. Hearing people talk about immigration with regards to the job market or changing neighborhoods? That’s common, and frequently negative. But people complain about new restaurants much less often.

After all, food and drink take most people to their “happy place,” said Ana Valle, the owner of Abanico Coffee Roasters, another spot on the map. When she drinks coffee, she’s transported to the times she spent sipping coffee with her grandmother in El Salvador. Those memories motivated her to start Abanico three years ago, and today, she hopes that her customers are similarly reminded of their family when they try her drinks.

Some of her drinks are Salvadoran or inspired by El Salvador — for instance, she flavors some lattes with a simple syrup infused with morro seeds, an ingredient often used in horchata. But that’s not her only source of drink ideas. She’s been influenced by her time in San Francisco, too.

Here, she met people from all over Latin America, and drew ideas from them about other menu items to include: an iced twist on the café de olla traditionally made in Mexico. A drink made by whipping turbinado sugar and espresso, inspired by Miami Cuban coffee.

Many other local food businesses featured in Melting Spots similarly draw inspiration from the Bay Area, Valle added. Just look at Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement.

For chef-owner Fernay McPherson, fried chicken is a family food — in fact, her family brought the dish with them on the train from Texas to California during the Great Migration. But McPherson, a third-generation resident of the Fillmore district, has also tweaked their recipe for Minnie Bell’s.

The biggest difference? Adding rosemary, a touch she calls “really San Francisco.”

“That’s what is really beautiful about the map,” Valle said. “It’s a reflection of ourselves and our experience, but it’s all a circle with San Francisco inspiration as well.”

As much as these businesses might add to the city, though, many are in danger today. Patricia Kocourek works at Mission burrito pioneer El Faro, and she’s the daughter of owner Raymunda Ramirez. She said it’s hard right now to run a small restaurant as demand drops.

Because of these challenges, Kocourek said she particularly appreciates Melting Spots for preserving — and publicizing — the stories of local family businesses before it's too late.

“It’s important to keep those on the map,” she said. “Because we want to support the small people and keep the city going.”

Reach Aviva Bechky:

June 17, 2024

Aviva Bechky


Aviva Bechky is an intern on the food and wine team. They are a rising senior at Northwestern University, where they study journalism, data science, and gender and sexuality studies. They most recently worked as a general assignment intern at Block Club Chicago and as a features intern at the Seattle Times. Hailing from Maryland, Bechky also spent a summer writing for District Fray Magazine in Washington, D.C. At their college paper, the Daily Northwestern, they served in several roles, including print managing editor, city editor, and development and recruitment editor. Outside the newsroom, they enjoy knitting, cooking and watching “Star Trek.”

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