Best Bao in San Francisco
In this crazy, mixed-up world there's something to be said for the simple joy of buying something good that is actually cheap as well. Not marked down, not a happy hour special, but honest-to-goodness, 24/7/365 cheap. A legit deal that makes you smile and think to yourself: Damn, it's good to live in this town!
Indeed, San Francisco boasts the panoply of options for the fiscally conscious consumer. But, in my humble opinion, the foodstuff that boasts the highest amount of satisfaction for the lowest cost is the humble Chinese bun, the bao.
Bao are Chinese buns made from wheat flour and yeast, filled with either sweet or savory ingredients. They can either be steamed, which results in a white-colored bun with a spongy texture, or baked into a more traditional bread-like bun with a golden brown, glazed exterior.
There are hundreds of bakeries and dim sum shops serving thousands of varieties of bun. I wanted to try them all, but only a fool would try to eat that many!
With all due respect for your own beloved bao – which I demand to hear about in the comments! – here are this fool's favorites.
Even a Jewish kid from suburban Massachusetts like me knows that the first stop on any SF bao-venture has to be Chinatown. So I scored a killer parking space right by Jackson and Stockton and started wandering the streets, ducking into any shop that looked – or smelled – absolutely wonderful. As you probably understand, this resulted in many, many stops.
The majority of the places I bought bao from in Chinatown were take-out, although a few had a couple small tables. My favorite buns in Chinatown came from the Cafe New Honolulu, which offered more of a traditional sit-down setting. As you enter, there are several big cases filled with all sorts of baked goods, from a wide variety of buns to moon cakes filled with lotus seed and red bean paste. Moreover, the walls were covered in a seemingly endless list of other menu items, all of which sounded amazing. But I was there to eat the buns, which were as warm and delicate as any bakery’s. Over a hot cup of good green tea, I enjoyed one stuffed with minced chicken laced with ginger and another absolutely bursting with high-quality barbecued pork. Instead of the fluorescent pink meat you sometimes find in cheaper, mass-produced bao, this pork was dark brown, saucy, and delicious. But the real find was the egg yolk custard bun, which offered a rich, creamy filling that paired perfectly with Cafe New Honolulu’s light, sweet pastry. The final bill for my three buns - and the tea - was under five dollars. See what I mean about a deal?
After Chinatown, I headed south in search of more, more, more! San Bruno Avenue in Portola is packed with bakeries and take-out dim sum places, all offering their own versions of steamed and baked buns. I found the Fancy Wheat Field Bakery crowded with customers serving themselves from the many cases. I asked the guy behind the counter what was fresh and was rewarded with a piping hot take on the “cocktail bun” a Hong Kong delicacy that’s packed with rich, delicious coconut cream. (The cocktail bun gets its name from the fact that the baker “mixes” the filling just like a bartender mixes a drink.) As I ate another, trays of fresh buns came out, so I also tried a pineapple bun filled with red bean paste. Pineapple buns don’t actually have any of the fruit in them – the name is a reference to their golden, sectioned outer appearance. Fancy Wheat Field’s take was crunchy and sweet on the outside, with softer dough surrounding the sweet, hot red bean paste within. I forced myself to leave before another rack of fresh bao appeared – I didn’t want to be stuck there all day.
I had to turn to Twitter to track down my next bao, as the much-beloved food truck The Chairman could be almost anywhere in the city. I found the distinctive red truck parked in front of City Hall with a big line wrapped around it. The menu offers four varieties of filling (two kinds of pork, chicken, and tofu) in either larger baked or smaller steamed buns. I waited my turn and was rewarded with two steamed buns, one featuring pork belly and pickled daikon radishes, the other with miso-cured tofu and baby bok choy. The fillings were both delicious, especially the inspired pairing of fatty pork belly with tangy pickled radish.
I won't lie - I'd already eaten a lot of buns. But no survey of bao in San Francisco could be complete without making the trip out to the Richmond and the Sunset. Between the Inner Sunset and the Inner Richmond, there were almost as many bun options as there had been in Chinatown.
But my destination was the Cafe Bakery & Restaurant on Noriega in the Outer Sunset, which offers Hong Kong-style pastries and food. Unique among the places I visited, Cafe Bakery & Restaurant prepares its buns more like donuts, fried in oil. The resulting treat combines all the best components of bao with donuts into an insanely good – if not exactly light – snack. I tried the indulgent curry beef bun, which offered a spicy, tangy filling of minced meat that paired well with the heavy and sweet dough. Just as delectable was the barbecued pork bun, which is baked in the traditional manner and offers a generous portion of meat inside. You can also buy the pork variety frozen in packs of 10 to take home, which you will almost certainly want to do after trying them.
It's easy to try a lot of different kinds of bao - virtually everything I ate was $1.50 or less. But keep in mind: most places are cash only. In Chinatown, try exploring the area near the intersection of Jackson and Stockton, where you can find Cafe New Honolulu (888 Stockton St.), the Good Mong Kok Bakery (1039 Stockton St.), Napoleon Super Bakery (1049 Stockton St.), the AA Bakery & Cafe (1068 Stockton St.), Yong Kee (732 Jackson St.), and Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Ave.).
In Portola, stick to San Bruno Avenue to visit Fancy Wheat Field Bakery (2668 San Bruno Ave.), Hoy Sun Restaurant (2520 San Bruno Ave.), and New City Bakery (2495 San Bruno Ave.). Sweet Delight Bakery (4476 Mission St.) is just minutes away in Excelsior.
You can discover where The Chairman and its bao are parked on Twitter: @chairmantruck.
The Sunset is packed with delicious buns, including the Sunset Bakery (1410 9th Ave.), Hing Wang Bakery (339 Judah St.), Sheng Kee Bakery (1941 Irving St.), iCrave (1915 Irving St.), and Cafe Bakery & Restaurant (1365 Noriega St.). And in the Inner Richmond head to the Red A Bakery (634 Clement St.) and Good Luck Dim Sum (736 Clement St.).