At Puerto Alegre, a Feast for the Stomach—and the Eyes

A view of Puerto Alegre's 'El Color y El Dolor: A Frida Inspired Art Show,' which opened at the restaurant on July 10. (Azucena Rasilla/KQED)

The Bay Area houses countless unconventional art spaces, and one of them just happens to be a Mexican restaurant.

If you've ever eaten at Puerto Alegre, a Mission District institution going strong since 1970, you're probably familiar with its delicious dishes, refreshing margaritas and friendly staff. Less well-known, however, is the restaurant's decade-old exhibition program, organized by Amparo Vigil, one of the restaurant's sibling co-owners, alongside a group of guest curators.

The idea to utilize the restaurant's wall space for exhibitions came from Carnaval, the two-day festival that takes place every year in San Francisco at the end of May. “We’re here, our customers are part of Carnaval," Vigil recalls. "I sort of wanted to blend it, and bring it in here.”

Amparo Vigil, one of Puerto Alegre's co-owners, in front of the Frida Kahlo tribute show she organized.
Amparo Vigil, one of Puerto Alegre's co-owners, in front of the Frida Kahlo tribute show she organized. (Azucena Rasilla)

She connected with one of her customers, Daniel Chimowitz, a photographer who also happened to be shooting the festival. Chimowitz brought in a series of shots from past years and hung them along the walls of the restaurant. It turned into the first of many exhibitions.

Inspired by the Carnaval exhibition, friends and customers inquired about the possibility of doing other shows. One of them was Calixto Robles, who is now one of the leading curators of the restaurant's yearly Día de los Muertos shows.

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Developing exhibition concepts is time consuming, and Vigil has a restaurant to run, so Puerto Alegre doesn't adhere to month-long shows like a fast-paced commercial art gallery. Instead, Vigil focuses her efforts on two main projects: the Día de los Muertos exhibit, and a Frida Kahlo show, which opens yearly around the time of the late artist’s birthday, July 6.

A view of Ruben Dario Villa's 'Mi Dulce Frida' at Puerto Alegre.
A view of Ruben Dario Villa's 'Mi Dulce Frida' at Puerto Alegre. (Azucena Rasilla)

The Kahlo shows coincide with Fiestas Fridas, a multi-day event that takes place in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities. This year's group exhibition, El Color y El Dolor: A Frida Inspired Art Show, opened at the restaurant on July 10.

Each Puerto Alegre exhibit typically remains up for at least two months, and gallery hours are the restaurant's dining hours. No matter where you sit in the space, you get a glimpse of a colorful piece of art.

In this year’s Frida exhibit, one of the most striking pieces is Mi Dulce Frida by Ruben Dario Villa, a portrait of Kahlo made entirely out of Mexican candy. Villa documented the six-day process of creating the piece on his Instagram.

Vigil enjoys ceding her walls to other curators with their own varied exhibition ideas. This past May, Bird Levy curated Mujeres de Valor (Women of Value), a tribute show to women as mothers, caregivers, nurturers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers. Calixto Robles curated a winter show at the beginning of 2018, and Arte en Resistencia (Art in Resistance), a spring 2017 show that demonstrated how Puerto Alegre's community unifies in the face of oppression and racism.

While summer's only a month over, Vigil is already contemplating a new exhibit for the end of the year. She's thinking, this time, of a religious theme revolving around La Virgen de Guadalupe, a venerated Catholic symbol highly representative of Mexican culture.

Puerto Alegre is known as one of the last remaining local family-owned businesses in San Francisco, but over the past ten years, thanks to its exhibitions of Bay Area artists, and the celebrations of those exhibitions, it's become a space for Latinx artists to showcase their work in the midst of a supportive community.

“We’re a table service restaurant, and we’re all about service,” Vigil says. “We’re all about Mexican hospitality, and bringing you into our home. We want to show you what our home looks like.”

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