Ten ardent chocophiles are seated around San Jalisco’s multicolored tile table. We scan the festive tangerine and lemon walls adorned with assorted masks, guitars and images of Frida, but when steaming platters of chicken mole appear, the tantalizing aroma and deep russet sauce ensure that all eyes are riveted to our plates.
This beloved family-owned restaurant has been filling the bellies of Mission regulars with Mexican comfort food since the 1950s and is famous for its goat stew. But our group is on a different mission: to trace the edible history of chocolate by sampling its local incarnations (sweet, savory and drinkable) with the help of Lisa Rogovin, founder of Edible Excursions. Her company’s latest tour takes our taste buds on a 3-hour exploration of traditional and innovative chocolate creations that dot San Francisco’s Mission District. Our first stop connects chocolate to its Mexican roots: chicken drenched in an earthy Poblano Chocolate Mole, a celebratory dish that dates back to the 1600s and represents Mexico’s mixed indigenous and European heritage.
Mole’s silken, sienna sauce is the result of a multi-step process of roasting, grinding and simmering more than 20 ingredients, including chili peppers (ancho, pasilla, mulato and chipotle), spices such as cumin, cloves, anise, cinnamon and garlic, plus the Mexican chocolate that gives the spicy heat its tinge of sweetness. The rich warmth of this dish lingers on our throats as we gather outside to continue our journey. Before the next stop on our walking tour, Lisa fills us in on a brief history of chocolate, its place in San Francisco and specifically the Mission.
The cocoa bean (or cacao) has been traced back to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayans and Aztecs used cacao both as a form of currency and a beverage, which was reserved for royalty, nobility and warriors. Once this chocolate drink made its way back to Europe -- first documented in 1544 in Spain -- it was also imbibed there by the ruling classes. The Italians began adding chocolate to food (cakes, meats, pastries, and pasta) and the French exclusively used it with desserts. While the Aztecs only drank their chocolate, more contemporary Mesoamericans were eating chocolate in the savory Mole Poblano sauce from the late 17th century.
History of Chocolate in San Francisco
By the early 18th century, chocolate had made its way to the American colonies. San Francisco is synonymous with chocolate. (Think Ghirardelli and Guittard.) In the mid 1800s, both Domingo Ghirardelli and Etienne Guittard realized that wealthy gold miners were the perfect patrons for their chocolate luxuries. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is America’s longest continuously operating chocolate manufacturer, but is no longer family-owned. Guittard, who started in 1868 with a small shop near the Embarcadero, now operates out of a 200-person factory in Burlingame and is the oldest family-owned chocolate company in the United States.
Joseph Schmidt – famous for their egg shaped truffles - had a factory on Folsom and 16th and a store on Sanchez. Sadly, Hershey’s bought and then eliminated the brand. The ubiquitous See’s Candy, which began in Los Angeles and then expanded north, once also had factory in the Mission. Happily, two vibrant chocolate factories are still operating in the Mission and await us on our tour today.
As we round the corner of 20th and Florida, Lisa tells us that Charles Chocolates has been part of the San Francisco chocolate scene since 1987. Today, we are lucky to have the owner, self-taught chocolatier, Charles “Chuck” Siegel, enlighten us about his passionate affair with chocolate.
In his blue jeans, t-shirt and running shoes, Chuck bubbles over with boyish enthusiasm, especially when he rhapsodizes on his favorite subject. Although he grew up in Flint, Michigan, a locale he calls “a culinary wasteland,” his family traveled a lot, and his father would always present his mother a gift of premium chocolates from New York, England or France. Tastes of those gifts inspired Chuck to recreate his favorite childhood candies with a gourmet reinterpretation. “I feel strongly that confections are ‘food’ if you start with good ingredients,” Chuck tells us. “So we use the best cream, butter, fresh herbs, fruit and nuts.” As in its former Emeryville location, the floor to ceiling glass walls of his open kitchens allow patrons to watch the entire process of candy making. Siegel emphasizes that candy, like bread, is best eaten fresh. “You don’t want to buy a week-old baguette or a box of month-old chocolate.”
Our sampling starts with a heart-shaped raspberry truffle, which Chuck instructs us to bite only halfway through (an act of extreme self-control that not everyone can manage) and then expounds on the importance of a thin shell, which can only be made by hand.
For me, however, the edible revelation is his butterfly shaped “peanut butter ganache.” Siegel confesses that he loved Reese’s peanut butter cups as a child but realized they were made with low quality ingredients. For many years, he tried making his own peanut butter to fabricate an improved version of the original, but was never happy with the results. Then only recently, he had an epiphany and created a peanut praline first, by cooking the nuts in sugar and then crushing them. The result is one of the most dynamic confections I have ever tasted: the caramelized sugar’s tiny shards explode with a surprise crunch in the midst of a creamy bite uniting the sweet and salty notes in an exquisite marriage.
We also try a bourbon truffle and a fleur de sel caramel – for which Seigel explains that the salt must be blended into the chocolate because when it is sprinkled on top, it dries out the tongue and impedes the tasting process. (These were fine confections – but my mind was still on the contradictory crunchy/creamy dynamic of the peanut butter ganache.) Chuck seems like he could enjoy discussing the finer points of candy making much longer, but with a schedule to keep to, after thanking him, Lisa herds the 10 of us out onto Florida Street for a brisk walk to our next stop as she points out some neighborhood culinary landmarks.
I am no stranger to Edible Excursions tours. Once I discovered and wrote about their tour of hidden culinary delights in San Francisco’s Japantown, I was inspired to join Edible Excursions as a guide, specializing in tours in ASL for eager Deaf Foodies. Of all the Edible Excursions tours, this one has the most walking between stops, which is a welcome way to digest the experience, both mentally and physically. As we turn onto lively Valencia Avenue, Lisa reminds us that cacao, for ninety percent of its history, was drunk instead of eaten.
In front of bustling Craftsman and Wolves, we are invited to drink mini-cups of sipping chocolate made with finely ground Valrhona bittersweet chocolate and topped with a house-made lavender marshmallow. A few sips of the revitalizing beverage, and I understand why drinking chocolate has been revered for its magical properties and health benefits for thousands of years. We take a brief peek inside the store at the gorgeous, creative pastries, several featuring chocolate, such as a chocolate croissant stack and chocolate sourdough.
A few steps away, in front of Dandelion Chocolate, Becky Wurang, a passionate pixie, with a wealth of information, greets us with a tray of delectable tidbits that reflect Dandelion’s commitment to crafting small-batch chocolates from bean to bar, working directly with small farmers around the globe to bring back what they believe is the best, and most ethically sourced cacao beans. As we examine the football shaped dried cocoa pod, dried cocoa beans are passed around and we’re instructed to rub off the roasted shells to nibble on the nibs. While Becky continues her talk and shows photos of the cacao plant, I hear one of the guests murmur that it’s hard to absorb the geographical details of growing cacao in the equatorial ring, when someone is holding a tray of chocolate right in front of our faces.
Our first sample is a slurp of a cacao fruit smoothie, which is the pureed form of the pulp that surrounds the chocolate seeds, or beans. The pulp is necessary in fermentation and this drink is imbued with a hint of tropical fruit. Finally, Becky hands out samples of three different chocolate bars that came from beans grown in Liberia, Belize and Madagascar. All are 70% chocolate, 30% cane sugar which makes their vastly different flavor personalities stand out. To me, the Liberian is mild and mellow, while the Belize has a citrusy zing and a floral finish, and the Madagascar a deep but not unpleasant smoky-sourness. Tasting three in succession emphasizes their variation.
What makes these single origin bars taste so different is the terroir, or the land on which their beans were grown. It should not be surprising that just as coffee and wines vary depending on their place of origin; the flavor of the cacao bean depends on the type of soil, rainfall, how the farmers handle the beans and how the beans are processed. Speaking of processing, Becky leads us inside Dandelion to show us where the beans become bars through a series of complex and time-intensive steps.
We get a brief tour of the living museum of machines inside Dandelion’s onsite chocolate factory, including a roaster, cracking machine, sorter, winnower, melanger, tempering machine and a vintage German wrapper from the 1950s that encases Dandelion bars in their distinctive gold foil. I never realized how each step of the process could be subject to many possible variations of time and temperature that all affect the final product.
After this fascinating backstory of the chocolate-making process, we cross Valenicia and duck into Mosto, sister bar to Tacolicious, which boasts over 300 varieties of tequila, mezcal and sotol. We end the intense tour relaxing in a dusky corner with a custom cocktail concocted just for the Chocolate tour: made with lime, orange, reposado tequila and – of course - Aztec chocolate bitters. As I sip the pleasant potion and relax on Mosto’s banquette, I find a persistent sense memory fluttering around my brain. It’s the crunch of the peanut butter praline that Chuck Siegel finally figured out. So after good-byes all around, I scamper back to Charles Chocolates, and net a swarm of peanut butter butterflies to bring home.
901 S Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco