Berkeley & San Francisco: Acme Bread

Five days later. A lot more poor. Even more fat. Really behind on homework. And super happy!!! I took off for Berkeley & San Francisco this weekend. It was a well needed break after a week of four midterms, five interviews, a paper and two presentations. Baaaahhhhhh. I left Friday afternoon right after my last interview – I needed to EAT!

Here was my agenda:
Ferry Building & Saturday’s Farmer Market
Acme Bread – oooh heaven!
Ici – honey lavender & pumpkin gingersnap ice cream
Canteen – for breakfast – Chupacabra
La Farine – almond croissants
Masse’s – almond croissants, fig & goat cheese tart
Cheeseboard Pizza
Cheeseboard Cheeseshop
Indian food…somewhere
Golden Gate Bakery – egg custard tarts
Berkeley Bowl – supermarket
Tartine – bread pudding
Gregoire – fig bread pudding, potato puffs
Zemocha – hot chocolate
Nan-Yang – Burmese
Cafe Fanny – breakfast – macarons
Kingpin donuts – cinnamon glazed twist

How is all this accomplished in a weekend? Just wear your loosest clothing and be willing to do nothing but search out good food all day :)

Basically, there were no “formal” meals planed. My goal was to sample as many baked goods and pastries as possible. But to be honest, man can NOT live off sugar alone (he’d have such bad diabetes!) and I do love my savory dishes, so I had an awesome breakfast of chupacabra at Canteen, ginger salad at Nan-Yang and a particularly memorable thin crust at Cheeseboard. But pastries are first priority. Always.

I’ve heard so much about Acme Bread, I’ve even had fantasies and dreams about their bread based solely off reviews from friends who were lucky enough to visit. Well, here was my chance! I went to two of their locations – the original on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley and the more recently opened outlet in the Ferry Building. My awesome host and Cal undergrad, Christine accompanied me as we woke up at 6:30 Saturday morning in our attempt to be the very first people at the market. The Acme shop here is simply beautiful – (this picture does not do it justice!) walls lined in baguettes, batards, pain di mie, brioche, challah…oh man. It was too much for me.

I started off with a warm sourdough cheese wheel. The fist-sized pastry was covered in cheddar, but a single bite revealed chewy savory sourdough laced with melted asiago cheese. The first nibble was good, the second better and by their third, it just hit you like that, in all it’s glory, a savory bread with the perfect chew and seemingly endless pockets of cheese. It was near heaven warm, but just imagine if it had just come out of the oven!

Mmmmmm. I love baguettes and I love anything that resembles a baguette provided the crust is crisp, almost to the point of hard but the innards must be soft and lush with only the pure flavors of flour and yeast. I admit half the reason I ordered the Epi was because I love the feel of carrying a “tall” bread. I must have read too many French children stories as a kid – always imagining myself as that little schoolboy (or girl, in my case) walking home with a fresh baguette tucked under your arm. But dream aside, this was a masterpiece, I broke off the top cut and marveled at the lightness of the bread, tore it half, watching some crumbs fall to my dress, biting in and rejoicing in the extremes of texture and plain perfection of the simple flavors. It was bread alone and it did not need a single thing in the world to make it better.

I went to the Berkeley location the next day. It’s a little out of the way on the north end of Berkeley and I had to transfer busses twice, but it was well worth it. It’s located in the most unassuming of locations and I would have walked past it if it were not for the long line of people out the door.

There’s only room for three or four customers to stand inside, but when it’s your turn do make sure to look around. The factory is a Disneyland of bread baking. Flour everywhere, warm scents of this and that, the cozy comfort of dough, sweet cinnamons and trees of baguettes, sweet ladders, apple tarts, cinnamons twists and herb slabs.

The family of Pumpkin Buns at sitting next to the cash register caught my eye with their small irregular shape and shades of orange-brown interrupted by splashes of red and dark purple. The slightly crisp skin harbors the softest, most mellow bun I’ve had in quite a while. The pumpkin flavor was present, though very subtle. Soft and doughy the soothing flavor was sparked with whole walnuts and an even mix of pucker tart cranberries and sweeeeet raisins. I ate the fall season in a bun.

Don’t try to finish the Citrus & Almond Brioche in one sitting. You’ll deeply regret this. I can tell you from experience. The picture above is deceivingly labeled as “small.” Anyone with good judgment can tell that it’s really NOT small. But I was blinded by the gods of baked goods and it seemed perfectly reasonable at the moment to attempt the entire Brioche. It was lovely. An eggy sweet rich bread, cut with bright bits of orange and lemon zest and dotted with almonds. I imagine this would make a most wonderful French toast…if there were any leftovers.

Bread makes me want to dance. To laugh. To do all sorts of wonderful things. Crisp breads, plush ones, sweet, salty, even throw in a bit of tang. In short, bread makes me incredibly happy. And that is why I have a bread belly in place of a beer belly. We should all have bread bellies – the world would be a much more happier place!

Acme Bread
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 288-2978

Acme Bread
1601 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702
(510) 524-1327

The Donut Man will hereby be known as the place responsible for my recent weight gain. You know how some people have beer bellies? Well I don’t drink beer. I have a donut belly. Or a croissant belly. Or bread pudding belly. Some kind of starchy belly.

I used to frequent Doughnut Plant in NYC quite often. Though I could never figure out why people raved about it so and so, I’d constantly return in hopes of experiencing that magical moment. Peanut butter and jelly donut, pumpkin donut, chocolate (Valhrona!) donut…sadly the moment never came. I do like their donuts, but at that high “gourmet” price, I’d rather head over to Claude’s for a croissant. Donut Man in Glendora, though, is a completely different story. My first visit was nearly a month ago, when peaches were gloriously ripe and tender sweet. Donut Man is primarily coveted his fresh fruit donuts where warm yeasty glazed donuts are sliced in half and stuffed high with slices of sweet peaches. Strawberries take center stage when in season. You get your hot dough, fried, practically melting into the soft fruity butteriness of the peaches. It’s divine. I forgot my camera. But I did not forget the taste!

But alas, peach season is all pau with and being the stickler about quality that the Donut Man himself is, we’ll have to wait for next year’s summer crop to bestow it’s bliss upon us. But in the meantime, I’ve been finding myself, courtesy of Julie and her car at Donut Man on random weeknights, indulging in whatever’s “hot” out of the fryer at the moment.

Just attractive as the seasonal fruit donuts are these wondrous Tiger Tails. Long and luxurious, yeasty soft strands of dough are swirled with melting lines of chocolate. Over a foot in length and delicate as fairy wings and tasty as heaven itself…be still my artery clogged heart! You must ONLY have the Tiger Tail when it’s HOT. Even if that means waiting outside for an hour…in the middle of the night…in Glendora…when you have Chinese homework due the next day. It’s your DUTY. Besides, they’re open 24 hours a day just for you, the least you can do is wait 60 minutes. You’ll look at the donut and think, “whoa man, that’s waaay to big for me to finish!” But don’t laugh. It’ll be gone in a minute. Just like that. And the best part is you won’t even feel the slightest bit heavy or greasy afterwards. That’s cause the man’s got a magic hand with oil! It also gives you no excuses to refuse a sample of the little cinnamon donuts bites they’ll most likely offer you.

Julie is fond of the Boston Creme donut. So fond that she couldn’t wait to hold it still for me to snap this picture. The inside was practically puffing with a soft pudding creme, so pure and decadent all the same. I haven’t sampled this one yet but I’ll sure take her word for it! :)
And if creme or chocolate doesn’t catch your fancy, look around. There’s a seemingly infinite number of choices…

It’s best to come late in the middle of the night, when it gets crowded and they’re churning out donuts like there’s no tomorrow. Come in with no preference and get whatever is being flipped out of the fryer. Get it hot, burn your fingers, no regrets.

Donut Man
915 E Route 66
Glendora, CA 91740
(626) 335-9111

Van’s Bakery

Let me introduce you to the fiiiiiinest bakery in all of San Gabriel. Okay, so it’s not really an introduction as I blogged about Van’s Bakery nearly a year ago. But they recently moved across the street to a larger shop (like five bazillion times larger) – so it’s technically a new place! Van’s Bakery is heaven for me. And even though I was raise on Vietnamese food (but I’m full Chinese) my Vietnamese vocabulary is still limited. I can point and describe to you the flavors of cha, che, pate sou and all these gorgeous Vietnamese creations, but ask me for a name and all I can do is smile and shrug my shoulders in defeat. No worries though, I’m working on it! Just give me a few months and I’ll get it down pat (all at the expense of studying for my Business Law class…though so worth it!)

You cannot ever ever leave Van’s without a cup of ca phe su da – the Vietnamese iced coffee. They brew it real strong here and add just the perfect amount of sweetened condensed milk. Almost smoky, sweet and lovingly smooth with the distinctive Vietnamese coffee bit, sip after sip goes by quite fast and before you’ll know it, all pau! It’s priced at $1.75 and if you ignore the massive quantity of crushed ice, it’s quite a good deal for the caffeine shock aftereffect.

This is Banh Gah. It does not look like dessert. Hell, it barely appears edible! It’s rather awful looking and even harder to imagine that it has much potential for deliciousness. And when you touch it – oh boy! It’s like a bumpy, what-the-hell-happened-to-the-jello feel. And it’s brown. And rough on the edges. BUT IT’S GOOD BABY! What is this Banh Gah – affectionately known as “Liver Cake” in English? Think of baked, firm custard based off coconut milk, eggs, brown sugar aplenty and a hit of chocolate, coffee and star anises. Interesting, no? The Banh Gah separates into three layers upon baking. A slightly crusty “baked” top layer, much like a softened version of the crisp banana muffin top, only coconut flavored. Then the middle: spongy and nearly pudding-ish, though firm in texture. At the near bottom is a inch thick block, lighter in color with a gelatin-like bounce. Lightly flavored and not too sweet at all, a slice of two of Banh Gah is the perfect afternoon retreat. And if you wish to whip of some of your own, here’s where to go, and let me know how it comes out!

I only had plans for coffee and banh gah, but a slice of Bánh Khoai Mon caught my eyes with it’s pretty green pandan top and taro speckled coconut base. It was only $1.50. I’ve never tasted it before. And when was the next time I’d be back? So I got it. Oooh, making so many good decisions today! This was surprisingly heavy, a very solid and rich coconut base with generous chunks of boiled taro bound in every bite. Halfway though, I though briefly about saving the rest for later – portion control and all, you know? – but just as quickly as the thought came into my mind, it disappeared. Some things just weren’t intended to be only half eaten. The layer of pandan (the Vietnamese version of vanilla – a billion times more fragrant) proved to be a refreshing cut contrast, light, with the densely rich coconut taro brick. Oh man, anyone know of a place that offers coconut taro ice cream? I could go for some!

And if you can find more room in you stomach after a massive lunch at Com Tam Thuan Kieu (which you really must try if you just NEED your com tam), consider picking up some of Van’s other pandan based desserts – all in the lovely soothing shade of green. Perhaps a pandan scented sponge rolled with lightly sweetened cream, jellies with strands of fresh coconut, have your coconut jelly layered with coffee too, if you so desire!

How about Vietnamese madelines in the top right corner, or sweets zhongs on the left? May I entice you with a triangle of banana studded coconut cake or pandan mochi-like rectangles with a little jar of sesame honey sauce?

We can even go for rice based sweets if you want, sweetened with coconut milk and soft black beans, sprinkle some of the chopped sugar dusted peanuts on top…it’s positively whimsical! A savory treat of Banh Beo lies on the right, steamed rice cakes with mung beans and a ground shrimp paste. Aren’t these dishes simply amazing? I mean, who comes up creations and combinations like this? Not just hamburgers of ground beef slapped between two buns (not to insult the hamburger – which I love dearly!) but this, man, this…steamed rice? salted mung beans and flaky shrimp powder?! I don’t think we could ever tire of exploring food given the million variations of different cultures. And the idea that all of this is found in just one bakery – why imagine if we went into every single bakery in the world! EVERY. SINGLE. ONE!

I usually like to leave you on a sweet note, but these fried pastries, though savory in taste, can often cure any desire for a sugary treat. A myriad of pates, meats and glass noodles are wrapped in buttery dough much akin to puff pastry – though a touch saltier. My favorites are the circular pate sous – a mix of ground pork, liver and all sort of unmentionable tasties…unmentionable as in, too good to put in words :) And that, now that’s what I call a bakery!

Van’s Bakery
860 E. Valley Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-7272

Com Tam Thuan Kieu

I am quite possibly, the happiest girl on the planet this moment. THE HAPPIEST! If you followed along my last few posts, you’ll know that I’ve been having the most intense cravings for com tam with cha. Now if I were still in NYC or Hawaii, this would be no problem cause I could easily walk to a restaurant or use my parent’s car. But here in lovely LA, I am regretfully, CAR-LESS. So there is pretty much no way I can get to a good Vietnamese restaurant in San Gabriel unless someone is willing to drive there. I wasted all Friday and Saturday sitting in my room, furiously angered over my situation. Bah! I was so mad. SOSOSO MAD! I was so angry I couldn’t even function or do my homework. I just sat there like a deprived chowhound. I sat there, an angry person. An angry college student. An angry college student with a healthy appetite and no transportation. Like a SUPER ANGRY human. I drew angry faces all over my business law homework. I refused to eat anything (until I got hungry). What has the world come to? Sob. I felt as if I were going to be permanently handicapped until I found some way to get com tam with cha.

But guess what? My friend Julie came like an angel from the sky (or rather, from the dorm across the street) and literally saved my life. Not kidding, I’ve had com tam dreams and mirages for the last three days – it’s all I can think about from the moment I wake up until I tuck myself in at night. I proposed a plan of “real” Vietnamese in San Gabriel (not the funny kine stuff we get in Claremont) for lunch and she eagerly agreed. How awesome is that? With the roar of her car engine, my week instantly turned from blahblahblegh to YAY! It felt even better than winning the lottery, not that I have or anything, but you know.

My aunt who used to live in the area suggested we try Saigon Flavor, as it was close to the Hawaii Supermarket and Van’s Bakery – two other places I wanted to stop by. Saigon was just doors down from the Hawaii market, so we planned to park in their lot, walk to Saigon, eat and come back from shopping. We pretend to do a little quick shopping before lunch to make sure they wouldn’t tow. And it sure was a good day to shop – Oct 6th is mooncake day so they had TONS of mooncake samples all over the supermarket. Some people call them the Chinese equivalent of the American fruitcake, but I think they taste much better. And all the different flavors they have – you can even get durian or blueberry mooncakes! But here comes the best part. The BEST. We exited the market, walked past a jewelry store, medicine place, and just as I saw Saigon, something more magnificent caught my attention. COM TAM THUAN KIEU. What?! This was never here before! I’ve never seen this place! This is the restaurant (though at different locations) that Elmo and Chubbypanda reviewed! (Note: it was their posts that started me on this com tam craze. The POWER of foodbloggers is truly dangerous!) This was the BEST DAY OF MY LIFE. The words COM TAM…oh man, oh man, they must have planted this restaurant here just for me.

“Forget about Saigon Flavor,” I told Julie as I literally dragged her in Com Tam. I was all smiles during our brief wait for a table. Everything looked so delicious; it took all my willpower and then some to stop myself from simply salivating over someone else’s dish. We were seated and quickly brought out menus, hot tea and water. Holy crap! So many com tam options! My bigger smile got even BIGGER. It was so big I’m surprised my face didn’t rip open. I must have looked like a psycho.

My eyes scanned down to the choice of com tam with cha. That’s all I wanted. And that’s what I’ve been dreaming about, craving, fuming about and drooling over. I didn’t need the nem or suon, just com tam and rice. I’m a simple girl. Or at least I was, until I saw the bi the guy next to me was eating…and then tau hu ky at another table. So I changed my order to the com tam with cha, bi and tau hu ky. Good choice! Our orders came on five minutes right after ordering and I dug in like a madwoman. How deprived I’ve been! Oh, it was so wonderful tasting. My whole mouth, every part of me was delighted. I tore apart the whole dish with such gusto, the cha was spectacular – this is my single most favorite type of Vietnamese item. A cross between the delicate chawan mushi and a crustless quiche, this is our take on the baked egg. Full with pork, noodles, mushroom and plenty of egg to bind it together, the whole mass is steamed and cut into triangles for serving. I was in heaven, guys. For real. The bi was not finely shredded or as flavorful as my grandma’s, but then again, when is food ever as “good as your grandma” makes it? but today, no matters. The bi was surely a sight for sore eyes/taste buds. Shredded pork and pork skin was mixed with roast rice powder giving both texture and a slightly smoky flavor. Tau hu ky is not frequently offered in Hawaii restaurants, so while in LA, I’m doing/eating all I can. Shrimp is ground to a fine paste and wrapped in a skin bean curd before being fried to the most awesomest perfection. It’s glorious. It’s heaven. Pour the nuoc nam over the entire dish, letting it soak into the rice and the egg, bi and shrimp and well…there’s nothing quite like it. Nothing in the world.

Julie had the com tam with shrimp rolls and charbroiled chicken. She loved it. She must have, as she finished it. But I was so focused on my plate that we didn’t even speak throughout lunch. Our total for the meal? $5.50 per plate. Crazy. We left the restaurant clutching our stomachs. Sooo full. But who cares? If I were handed another plate, I’d willingly polish it right off. It’s all in the rice, the tender morsels of broken pieces of jasmine rice, flavored sweet and salty by nuoc nam. Tiny little cuts of starch, such simple things really, it’s this stuff that keeps the world going round in smooth circles.

Ridiculous isn’t it? All you need is good food and nothing else to be happy.

Why this really is the happiest day of my life!

(More on Van’s Bakery – a Vietnamese madhouse of great snacks/desserts in the next post:)
Com Tam Thuan Kieu
120 E. Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 280-5660