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Food & Drink

Why this San Francisco restaurateur made a triple bet on San Francisco’s Bayview

A woman with blonde hair, tattoos, and a black apron stands smiling in a kitchen with shelves and plants behind her.
Restaurateur Kristin Houk at Tato restaurant in San Francisco on Thursday, September 21, 2023. Named after Houk’s teenage son, Tato employs and is connected with the hyperlocal community in the Bayview, with team members living blocks away from the restaurant. | Source: Don Feria for the Standard

Kristin Houk has a knack for beautifying everything she touches. 

The three restaurants she owns in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood aren’t just places to eat—they are havens. 

Houk cleared out 14,000 pounds of trash from the lot on Jerrold Avenue and Third Street where her first restaurant, All Good Pizza, stands. When she first got the property, it was considered blighted because it had so many code violations. Bit by bit, Houk cleaned out the garbage and added an Atlas 8-by-24-foot trailer, out of which she serves homemade pies and crunchy kale salads. 

The outdoor restaurant, which Houk calls her “baby,” opened 12 years ago and is decorated with string lights and potted plants.

When you’re sitting at a red picnic table surrounded by succulents under the shining sun, it’s hard to imagine the lot having the equivalent weight of garbage as a large elephant. Today, it’s not the fumes of rotting waste but the smell of organic red sauce that lingers in the air. 

Houk followed the success of her first restaurant—which filled a hole for fresh, well-prepared food in the Bayview—with two others, opening Tato taqueria on Third Street in 2018 and Café Alma on Innes Avenue in 2019. 

A Bayview resident and homeowner for over 20 years, Houk has a deep commitment to a neighborhood she feels is perpetually slighted, and she’s on a mission to change the perception of the place she calls home. 

“The media narrative around violence in the Bayview is hyperinflated crap,” she said. “The reality of this community is that it’s so close-knit.” 

A mural with 'BAY VIEW Forever' on a building's side, trees, a clear sky, and a colorful pole on the left edge.
Murals along 3rd Street corridor, a shopping street of the Bayview, Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Houk learned that firsthand when she tried to buy her first home. Outbid on 26 houses in San Francisco’s tight real estate market, she had given up on the idea that she would ever find a place of her own. 

Then one day, she received a call from her mom, who was convinced she’d found just the right place for her—what she called “a diamond in the rough” on Hudson Avenue. The proposition felt fated from the start, since Hudson is her mother’s given name and “Hud” was her grandfather’s nickname. 

In a deal sealed with a bottle of Hennessy and a neighborly chat—like all good transactions should be—Houk was able to negotiate the price of her house and finally have a home to call her own. The whole experience of the purchase, so different from elsewhere in San Francisco, was only the beginning of her discovering Bayview’s magic. 

When she moved from the Mission into her new place, new neighbors kept coming up to her, asking if they could help her carry her boxes. 

“It’s so genuine,” she said. “How have I overlooked this place?” she asked herself. 

Houk, who at the time worked at Dolores Park Café, lamented the lack of fresh food in the community—despite the presence of the SF Market in the neighborhood, a produce center that feeds the whole city. 

“So many of the things made in the Bayview don’t stay in the Bayview,” she said, mentioning the produce market and the meat wholesaler P.G. Molinari. Houk couldn’t understand why there were so few restaurants in a neighborhood that is so close to Downtown. 

While Houk wouldn’t open her first restaurant for another 11 years, she had an experience that proved intrinsic to what would ultimately become her path as a Bayview restaurateur—working in the nonprofit world at an organization called Namaste Direct

A pioneer in microfinance, the social entrepreneur Bob Graham founded Namaste Direct in the 1980s as a way to help women in Guatemala achieve financial independence. The organization has grown over the years—it now has 17 employees—but Houk was Graham’s first hire. 

“It was a major stepping stone in every way,” Graham said of Houk’s time at Namaste Direct. 

She rose all the way to CEO of the organization and knew every aspect of the business, Graham said. Houk now serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors. 

Graham cited Houk’s unbounded energy and enthusiasm as keys to her success in the organization and called her a leader, initiator and “someone who knows how to get things done.” 

Yet there’s another quality of Houk’s that may be even more important, one that typically doesn’t show up on resumes or in job descriptions. 

“She makes people feel good about themselves,” Graham said. 

A diverse restaurant team poses inside a cozy eatery with a kitchen in the background.
Restaurateur Kristin Houk, second left, stands for a portrait with team members, Deysi Diaz, far left, Amer Diaz, center, Franklin Diaz, second right, and Giselle Ajpop, far right, at Tato restaurant in San Francisco. | Source: Don Feria for the Standard

Just like Houk herself, the spaces of her restaurants are warm and welcoming. Café Alma, in a warehouse on Innes Avenue, has all the charm of a Brooklyn hangout: rattan light fixtures dangle from the extra-high ceilings, a smattering of newspapers decorates the long bar where customers gather and hanging chairs demarcate a cozy hangout area. Blonde wood shelves have curated products for sale, items like vintage enamel cookware, hand-crafted ceramics by local artisans and bottles of rosé. 

Tato, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, is just as welcoming—but in a more vibrant palette. Chairs upholstered in a cheerful yellow vinyl stand at the front tables, and the walls are decorated with the perforated metal of Mexican handicrafts. Margaritas come studded with dried wheels of citrus and rimmed with black Hawaiian salt. 

But the tacos themselves are the real treat, an absolute delight for carnivores and vegetarians alike. There’s not one, but three, vegetarian tacos—none of which involve tempeh or tofu. Instead, Houk learned to cook from her Mexican mother-in-law, who shared her recipes for mole and was known for her impromptu feeding of large crowds, another woman who could seemingly make something out of nothing. 

A wheel of fortune—spin the circle, you get a prize—stands on the counter from the shop’s five-year anniversary party, with generous rewards: a free taco, a free margarita, $5 off your order. And if a customer doesn’t want to redeem their win on the spot, they can take an old-timey certificate to use in a future visit. 

Two chefs work in a kitchen; a prize wheel offers a free taco plate and a free spin.
A composite image of Tato restaurant workers Franklin Diaz and Amer Diaz preparing meals during lunch service, left, and a detail of a wheel of fortune-style game where customers have a chance for free and discounted meals during Tato lunch service. | Source: Don Feria for The Standard

When asked if she’ll keep the wheel past the anniversary, she queries the employee working the front counter about what they think. 

“I let my staff lead everything,” she explained. 

It’s not the only way in which Houk passes along the credit to others. 

“It’s about a legacy of women,” she said when asked about her success. “It’s not about me.” 

Houk’s community-focused approach likely stems from the instrumental period she spent at Namaste Direct, one in which she realized that everything she was doing in a faraway country could be applied in her home community of Bayview. 

“The family, the support, the inclination towards entrepreneurship—all those factors in Guatemala, it’s the same ingredients here,” she said. 

Her three restaurants—brimming with delectable food made with fresh ingredients—are not the only way Houk gives back to her community and the city. She is board chair of Economic Development on Third and a food director for Transitional Age Youth, which prepares and delivers fresh food to housing-insecure youth, which at one point she called “her favorite job.” She’s also a mother—her son lends his nickname to her taco shop and shares his legal name with the street on which she lives.

How does she manage it all? Houk claims her work is easy because of the community she lives in. 

“People are so excited and so encouraging,” she said, noting she couldn’t imagine opening restaurants anywhere else. 

A woman converses with a customer across a café counter, with a vibrant pink piñata in the shape of the number 2 in the foreground.
Restaurateur Kristin Houk, left, speaks with a friend before lunch service at Tato restaurant in San Francisco. | Source: Don Feria for the Standard

Earl Shaddix has known Houk for 12 years, ever since he first walked into All Good Pizza and immediately befriended her. 

“It was love at first sight,” he said. “We’ve been besties ever since.” 

Houk and Shaddix, the executive director of the nonprofit Economic Development on Third, talk every day, and they share a love of the Bayview and delicious food. The two began doing community events together, like nighttime dinners and farmers’ markets. They poured so much energy into revitalizing the neighborhood that the city approached them in 2016 with the idea of creating Economic Development on Third, an organization that works on everything from facade improvement to local events and public art in the Bayview. 

Shaddix also comments on Houk’s energy in what seems like six jobs, saying she never stops moving. She’ll be painting a wall and then unloading a dishwasher and then fixing his Instagram, he said. 

“I’m convinced there are two Kristins,” he said. 

As if to prove his point, in the middle of our interview about her life, Houk breaks into fluent Spanish to direct the delivery of oversize vats of canola oil among her restaurants. 

Two kitchen scenes: on the left, a pot of rice is stirred; on the right, a person preps food in a commercial kitchen.
A composite image of Franklin Diaz stirring a pot of rice, left, and Amer Diaz preparing a takeaway order, right, at Tato restaurant in San Francisco. | Source: Don Feria for The Standard

Perhaps the only sad note in Houk’s story is that her three restaurants aren’t as crowded as they should be. On a recent Wednesday, only a few customers linger at All Good Pizza and Tato, regulars who cycle between Houk’s restaurants and speak highly of her and all she has done for the neighborhood. 

It’s hard not to wonder how many people would be crowding the line if Tato’s rainbow carrot taco with its smoky chipotle yogurt and almond hazelnut dukkah were on a menu in Hayes Valley, or if All Good Pizza’s wood-fired pie with grana padano, roasted fennel and Graziano’s Italian sausage were being served up in the Haight. But don’t ask Houk that—she wouldn’t want to know, and she’s not going anywhere.  

“The Bayview is so much more than what people think it’s about,” she said. “It’s a collision of cultures unlike anywhere else.”