A trail of crumbs on Instagram — photos of bright-green kaya toast in particular — might lead customers to Breadbelly, a new cafe and bakery from fine-dining alums Clement Hsu, James Wong, and Katherine Campecino-Wong. But that toast is just a “gateway drug,” says Campecino-Wong. “It draws people in... and hopefully when they taste it, they like it, and are encouraged to try more stuff.”
Campecino-Wong, who was previously pastry chef at Mourad, met her husband, Wong, and their co-founder, Hsu, while working at Atelier Crenn. As the trio struck out on their own with pop-ups as Breadbelly, the recurring question for the partners became what might make a dish their own.
“For us, that’s looking towards familiar flavors we grew up with, or flavors from Asia, and discovering how to apply them to a delicious food we have here,” says Wong.
After an all-hands-on deck, DIY buildout, Breadbelly opened its cafe in December at 1408 Clement Street (between 15th and 16th Avenues). Charming mix-and-match plates came from the location’s previous tenant, Heartbaker, and Hsu himself, who dabbles in ceramics and made his own bowls to cut costs.
The homespun new space in the diverse, heavily Asian-American Richmond District is a fitting one for Breadbelly, given its mission. You could call the cafe Asian-American, or American-Asian, but Hsu likes to think it’s just “New American,” an encompassing term employed in particular by fine dining establishments.
“When you’re a cook cooking in California specifically, but in America generally, we throw around this term, ‘New American,’ and it’s like, your’e trying to wrap your head around it,” says Hsu. Maybe Breadbelly fits the bill, he suggests.
“This is very much Asian, but very much American as well, and we’re happy with how that’s come together.”
Take a look Inside the Dishes at Breadbelly.
Anko Sticky Bun
“Sticky buns are typical of any bakery,” says Campecino-Wong. “It’s a no-brainer to sell. But how do we make it ours? What can we put in this that would make it Breadbelly?”
The answer: Toasted pecans, salted caramel, and sweet adzuki bean (red bean) paste, known in Japanese as anko, with candied beans on top
The bun developed over the life of Breadbelly’s pop-ups. Briefly it was a roll, and one mold made it look like a mushroom, which wasn’t flattering. “You’re always tweaking,” says Wong.
Ham and Cheese Ensaymada
Breadbelly advertises its ensaymada, a Majorcan pastry introduced to the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period, as brioche with ham and pecorino romano cheese — unfamiliar customers sometimes expect those shavings to be coconut. The pastry’s name comes from the pork lard that enriches the dough – saym derives from an arabic word for pork fat.
“When we first started thinking about the menu, we made up a prerequisite that if the technique was predominantly Western, it would have to have an Asian counterpart to balance it,” Campecino-Wong explains. “And if it’s a totally Asian pastry, then we have to do it justice, or give it a twist so people are more familiar with the flavor.”
That’s the case here: The team added ham, doubling down on the ensaymada’s pork flavor.
“Not Ube!” Tart
“The point Kate wanted to make [with the ‘not ube!’ tart] is that ube is really hard to find in the US,” says Wong, referring to the popular purple yam used in Filipino desserts.
The team didn’t want to use frozen ube, which is common. “That’s not to say it’s bad, you can do it,” says Campecino-Wong. “But why not take produce grown here by our farmers,” specifically a Stokes purple sweet potato.
The team fills their tart shells — a pate brisée crust — with the roasted potatoes, mixed with sugar, butter, salt and vanilla. The tart is baked and topped with meringue, which the team torches. Finally, they grate a salted egg yolk on top.
Initially, customers found the tart too sweet. The team adjusted the meringue, taking back the sweetness a notch, and torched it harder, “because the bitterness counteracts the sweetness,” Campecino-Wong says.
“We look at the the kaya toast as our first Beadbelly dish,” says Hsu. “Japanese milk bread, Malaysian kaya jam — it’s a little bit of everywhere, but it all came together to make something delicious.”
It’s a little bit San Francisco, too, as toast itself has become something of a regional specialty: Unfamiliar customers sometimes confuse the dish with California’s ubiquitous avocado toast. Those who wonder why it’s green, for example, open the door for the team to segue into an explanation of pandan, an ingredient that joins coconut in the kaya jam.
“It’s that easy step where you say: ‘pandan is this leaf that comes from Southeast Asia, it’s got a flavor profile of rice, and it gives the jam that green color.’”
“In that sense, [the kaya toast] is the mold for how our dishes are created, and it’s the mold for the way in which we want to engage the customer,” Hsu says.
While kaya toast is new to some, it’s familiar and comforting to many, many others.
“The craziest part is how many people from different parts of Asia resonate with the kaya toast,” says Hsu. “It’s not just Malaysians but also Singaporeans, Filipinos, Thai... even people from Hong Kong, it’s a dish there as well…”
“Soft sweet bread with a sweet coconut spread — there’s something of that nature in every southeast Asian country,” says Campecino-Wong.
Char Siu Sandwich
Instead of serving their char siu, or barbecue pork, as a traditional Cantonese bun, Breadbelly decided to make theirs a western-style sandwich. It’s served with greens like little gems or mustards (or whatever produce is available) and cucumbers and baby bok choi on the same Japanese milkbread as the kaya toast. The team roasts the pork themselves, and more surprisingly, makes their own char siu barbecue sauce.
“No one does that,” says Hsu. “If you’re a nicer restaurant, you might... add stuff to it, but it’s pretty standard in Chinese-American cuisine [to just buy it]. There are so many reputable brands.”
Hsu and Wong went about reverse-engineering char siu, avoiding the frequent industrial addition of red food coloring. Theirs gets its recognizable redness from fermented red been curd alone.
“We’d never made it before, we knew some flavors that were prominent in the sauce, and we just went about it,” says Hsu. “It’s maybe symbolic of how we’re still discovering things for ourselves all the time.”
Brown Butter Mochi with peanuts
Wong’s father hails from Hawaii, where brown butter mochi is a classic culinary confluence of Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese cultural influences.
“We learned this technique of browning butter with milk solids to make it extra brown buttery,” says Campecino-Wong. “I don’t want to give up too many secrets, but that’s why it’s really brown.”
These days, new-school mochi is hugely popular, from mochi muffin and doughnut maker Third Culture Bakery to perpetually hot Hawaiian-influenced restaurant Liholiho Yacht Club. For Breadbelly, a bakery and cafe that’s one in a small cohort of next-generation Asian-American bakeries, the question became how they might differentiate their baked goods from the growing crowd.
“We love all our peers, we support and want them all to be successful,” says Campecino-Wong. “But how do we distinguish ourselves from all these very talented people, and share the clientele... but not make the exact same thing?”
While the team is more than happy to see customers from distant neighborhoods or out-of-town Instagramming their meal at the cafe, “We always thought of [Breadbelly] as being a neighborhood restaurant,” says Wong, “a really good snack place, or a place that offers a full meal, too.” So when neighbors asked for soup, the team provided. Wong’s broth avails itself of roasted Chinese barley, to showcase the tea program that Breadbelly is building, too.
“Doing lunch and breakfast is a big part of being a community-driven spot,” says Hsu. “We want people to feel comfortable coming in a couple times a week, whether for a pastry or a coffee or getting lunch.” In addition to tea, Breadbelly serves coffee from Wrecking Ball Roasters.
But Breadbelly doesn’t have to stop at lunch: The team plans to add dinner (they also serve beer and wine) and a full brunch menu down the line. There’s more savory food to come, including items from a tandoori oven the team has yet to fire up.
For now, after their years in demanding, Michelin-starred kitchens, Wong, Hsu, and Campecino-Wong are happy to take things slow.
“When I left Mourad, Mourad [Lahlou] told me, ‘This is not a sprint,’” Campecino-Wong recalls. “You want to be consistent all the time, and when you hit your threshold, you add more.”
“We’re pacing ourselves at a good clip,” says Hsu, “and making sure the quality of the food and the service we provide is on point and in line with our vision.”