Join us for Tag Along, where local writers, artists, food authorities, and celebrities lead us to the best food and drinks in their favorite Bay Area neighborhoods.
After walking up the hill out of the Tenderloin, where he was raised, then-teenaged Mokhtar Alkhanshali would gaze into the enormous glass windows of the Lamborghini dealership (though these days the space is home to Tesla) and see the life he wanted. He succeeded: Alkhanshali launched 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 Yemeni American, and when his parents noticed him on a rocky path, they sent him to his grandparents’ farm in Yemen as a way to get out of the madness of the city. He’s immortalized in Dave Eggers’s book Monk of Mokha and now jets around the world working on various projects, giving input on friends’ coffee businesses, and promoting Yemen’s first-ever national coffee auction with his nonprofit the Mokha Institute. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his old neighborhood. “It always gets a bad rep,” Alkhanshali says. “It’s a beautiful, ugly, wonderful, horrible, amazing place. It’s a blend of these dialectic terms, but, for me growing up, it was magical.”
When thinking about the Tenderloin, Alkhanshali points out that people often overlook the approximately 4,000 kids who live in the neighborhood. Growing up, his friends were a diverse mix of Vietnamese, Yemeni, and African American. He got tips on how to turn a dollar into two from sex workers, nonprofit workers, and drug dealers alike, and he remembers people regularly saying hello to their neighbors. He loved taking in the intense, dark aromas from Angel Café & Deli on Geary — and though he didn’t drink coffee at the time, he knew that, if and when he did, he’d want to do so there.
But the neighborhood was also stymied by rampant inequality and still is today; since December 2021 there have been 48 citations for drug sales in the neighborhood. “We’re all products of our environments,” Alkhanshali says. “But it’s in the United States where I was taught that people of color have limited options.” Alkhanshali loves to see the Tenderloin shine, though, especially given its rich Yemeni community and outstanding architecture and murals. In this Tag Along, he took Eater SF to six coffee shops and bakeries, with an honorable mention to Maison Danel — the Parisian-inspired cafe is in the same building where Alkhanshali once lived. (He says it used to be a porn shop.) Read on for a coffee crawl highlighting the Tenderloin’s local shops, strong coffee, and commitment to quality.
Fluid Coffee Cooperative
332 Golden Gate Avenue
Alkhanshali wanted to start at La Cocina Municipal Marketplace because he says the immigrant-business incubator is a sign of the new class of entrepreneurs elevating San Francisco’s underrepresented communities. Fluid Coffee Cooperative is, to 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 daddy,” joined Alkhanshali to discuss the “cocktail of community colleges” they both attended. Ty grew up as a trans Filipinx kid in the Excelsior neighborhood and says he feels less alone after hearing Alkhanshali’s story. Co-founder Santana Tapia joined us for a cup, too, as Alkhanshali ground up some Yemeni coffee he had sent via Uber from San Jose. It was the first time this coffee had ever been served in the United States, and it tasted like apricot, the acidity and brightness ringing on the teeth.
87 McAllister Street
Alkhanshali couldn’t contain his pride as we walked over to Arsicault, swooning over the idea that a Bon Appétit-recognized bakery would open up on McAllister Street. On the way, he bumped into union leaders from the Service Employees International Union Local 87. “These guys were my heroes growing up,” Alkhanshali says. At Arsicault, we dug into croissants, raisin-flecked kouign amann, and French-roast coffee in a well-lit space filled with the smell of browning butter. When asked about opening in the oft-dismissed neighborhood, Arsicault owner Armando Lacayo, who is both Nicaraguan and French, says he wouldn’t want anyone who wouldn’t venture into the Tenderloin to try his creations. (Not a tremendous problem for Lacayo’s fans given the original location is in the more approachable Richmond District.) “It’s not a high-end neighborhood,” Lacayo says. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t do what you love.”
399 Golden Gate Avenue
One hasn’t walked a San Francisco sidewalk until they’ve walked with a Philz mint mojito latte in 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 moved from Palestine to the U.S. as a 12-year-old and built a coffee empire from the ground (and grinds) up. “It’s dessert,” Alkhanshali says of the icy drink. In comparison to some of the McCafe-esque lattes these days, this drink is a refreshing zip of sugar and caffeine for about $4.50, a creamy peppermint blur to make Cary Grant jealous.
687 Geary Street
Right down the street from Angel Café, Alkhanshali beelines to this craft coffee shop. He walks the streets and shakes hands with baristas and sleepy coffee drinkers like he is the ambassador of the Tenderloin (and Yemen simultaneously). Every conversation is a chance for him to brief would-be enthusiasts of Yemeni coffee. Luckily for him, the team at Scullery, a coffee shop that looks like a Scandinavian woodshed popping up out of the blue, is very on board with the concept. The shop is uber-small, just a few stools and two outdoor seating arrangements, but the coffee makes itself the star of the small stage. Andre, a chipper and bearded barista, seems fully confident to whip up an oat milk variant on a Vietnamese coffee or pull a divine shot on the shop’s Seattle-made Slayer espresso machine. This multi-roaster (a shop that showcases other coffees rather than roasting their own) shows off Mother Tongue beans from Oakland, makes a mean avocado toast, and might just be a destination for Port of Mokha coffee someday if Alkhanshali has anything to do about it. “I never thought I’d see a Slayer in the Tenderloin.” Alkhanshali sighs.
Jane the Bakery
925 Larkin Street
The end of the tour is an emotional experience. We’re deep into our caffeinated madness, sure, but Jane the Bakery brought up different memories for Alkhanshali. He grew up running down Cedar Street to get produce for his mom and to see such a colorful and vibrant shop next door to where he once picked up asparagus is a bit of a trip. Now he can order an elote turnover, oozing with cotija and lime, on the very same block where he once got jumped. The store features Equator Coffees — touted as California’s first queer-woman-owned roaster — and has a sweet, brightly lit dining space filled with laughter and music. Gentrification doesn’t seem to cross Alkhanshali’s mind. He’s too busy smiling and wondering about how more of his people from the neighborhood can get a taste of this surge in activity. “I’ve seen so much violence on these streets,” Alkhanshali says. “Having bitter moments allows you to enjoy sweet moments.”