A Foodie’s Roadmap to the Tenderloin

A Resident’s Recommendations for Bites & Counternarratives

The Faithful Fools hosts “street retreats” several times a year for community members to spend time
connecting with each other and the neighborhood. For more info, visit faithfulfools.org.
Photo by Samantha Avila Griffin/ SF FOGHORN

I’ve often heard the Tenderloin contextualized as the butt of a joke, a catalyst of horror stories and generally a place to avoid. Yet, according to SFPD statistics, the Tenderloin in 2023 was the location of less than 1% of crimes in the city, only a recorded 2,847 out of 50,529 total. There has also been a 10.1% decrease in crime in the Tenderloin, while crime in the Richmond district increased 1.3% in the past year.

To see for myself, I went to the Tenderloin and spoke with The Faithful Fools to learn more about the neighborhood’s rich blends of culture. 

The Fools are among many nonprofits that provide services such as arts and education programs, essential worker support and survival resources for residents. Founded in 1998 by Kay Jorgensen and Carmen Barsody, the Fools have built their legacy around their ground-level exposure to the realities of poverty and life on the streets. I first was connected with the organization in the fall of 2022 through USF’s Honoring Our Queer Religious Elders class.

Leah Laxamana, co-director of the Fools, is a longtime resident of the Tenderloin, referred to as the “TL.” Laxamana is aware of the harsh realities existing in the Tenderloin. “The reputation precedes itself,” she said. However, she said, “Crime and violence, they happen outside TL. There’s nothing special here that doesn’t happen anywhere else, what happens here is there’s no secrets — this is life unedited.” 

The essence of the Fools’ philosophy is based in gradually increasing meaningful interaction within the Tenderloin, or “finding different access points based on peoples comfortability, and then challenging that,” in Laxamana’s words.

Referencing a Korean tapas restaurant around the block, Laxamana told me about the vast cultural blend of her neighborhood from the high volume of immigrant families. The Tenderloin is “a food haven,” Laxamana said. The best way to become acquainted with the neighborhood is to “eat your way through the TL,” she said. So, I ate.  

Around the corner from the Fools is  Z Zoul Café, a Black family-owned, Sudanese restaurant.. The 6-year resident has a similar outlook on the neighborhood as the Fools. “It’s not all about Tenderloin — there is Tenderloin in each city in the world,” said owner Aref Elgaali. Elgaali has also been the co-founder and president of the Tenderloin Merchant and Property Owner’s Association (TMA) since 2019. 

One of the few Black-owned restaurants in the area, Z Zoul offers the cuisine of Sudan with a view of vibrant buildings surrounding the restaurant.  Elgaali’s wisdom pairs well with the food — if you can trap him into a conversation while ordering, that is. Upon walking in, I was greeted with a warm aroma of cumin and garlic. For $12.75, you can enjoy Elgaali’s highly recommended Chicken Shawarma wrap, and chase it down with his reflections about the greater community. Egaali recalled, “if you came [during] APEC and you see the Tenderloin — it’s different. They cleaned it up.” 

Down a few blocks from Z Zoul and the Fools, Larkin street is stacked with restaurants rich in flavor, celebrating culture with a ‘service with a smile’ mentality. If you’re seeking  delicious vegan options, Golden Era Vegan Restaurant serves blends of Aulacese (Vietnamese), Chinese, Indian, and Thai cuisine under the ethos of a plant based diet. Right across the street from them is Gateway Croissant, home of doughnuts as golden as the avenue it lives on, with pastries ranging from simple muffins to delectable churros. The owner serves each individual with humility and neighborly familiarity.

Hidden under scaffolding, Spice of India could easily be missed, but certainly should not be. If you’re craving spicy samosas or a refreshingly tangy drink like the recommended mango lassi — which owner Madina A. claims is so good she “could have it in an IV drip to [her] soul” — this is the place to be. Beyond savoring the comfort of her food, it was a joy to hear Madina fawn over the process of cooking. A small family and women-owned business, Madina offers a familiarity and friendliness akin to the other Tenderloin haunts. Something about hearing her describe the balance of flavor notes and ingredients in her mango lassi gives a deeper glance into how much more these places are than a quick bite. 

Food just scratches the surface of the impact immigrant families have had on the Tenderloin community. Had I not heard Leah describe the area’s rich history, I might not have found these four delicious manifestations of that rich cultural blend that lives there. In Laxamana’s words, “the ongoing work is to peel away the counter narrative…what are you gonna do instead of talking about it?”

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, Scene Editor: Inés Ventura

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