Clad in a camo jacket with a toothy grin plastered across his face, Alex Pong is busy making arguably San Francisco’s most supreme coffee drinks. He was laid off while working in tech, but he’d already been a barista on the side for about five years, just for a bit of analog fun at now-defunct Contraband Coffee and Jina Bakes in Japantown to dip out of his digital world. When he got canned, it seemed so obvious. “Why don’t I just make coffee?” he asked himself. “I was used to blasting out coffee on the weekends.”
Now he’s running Paper Son Coffee Wednesdays to Sundays at Neighbor Bakehouse. The idea began with a coffee cart, possibly a catering outfit, but his friend and now business partner Alexander Fung told him Neighbor was looking for a drink program. Goodies come from the bakery, of course, but Pong and a host of friends work the espresso machine as they crack out phenomenal and original drinks. Now he’s knee-deep in that pop-up residency in the Dogpatch — and making some of the best coffee in the city while he’s at it. “I can’t say no to that,” Pong says.
Paper Son’s namesake, and Pong’s own sense of ingenuity, comes from his family history. His great-great-grandfather came to San Francisco as a paper son, a term for mostly Chinese immigrants who purchased fraudulent identification documents asserting they are immediate family members to a Chinese American citizen. The Bay has a unique history to this lineage as the earthquake of 1906 provided an opportunity to many would-be travelers who could claim their files had been destroyed in the wreckage. “It was a network of official and non-official relatives,” Pong says of his family. “I’m Asian, but I feel truly Asian American. I have no particular leaning toward any Asian country because my family’s been here forever.”
His modern approach is reflected in the menu; the entrepreneur and barista says the fare is Asian-inspired but forward-facing. Flat whites, espressos, and cappuccinos are all well-executed here — as are intricate pour overs such as rotating Gesha varietals — but it’s the non-traditional drinks that are worth lingering on. Pong’s Thai Tea Cloud is less overpoweringly sweet than many counterparts throughout the city, with body and rich decadence, like a peach cobbler milkshake. Another inventive riff is the Pandan Aerocano, an Aeropress-pulled Americano with effervescent body, and the passionfruit espresso tonic is one Pong particularly likes to make. “I don’t feel like I have ownership over it,” Pong says. “I just want to have fun.”
He wants to open his own coffee shop one day, and his fascination with coffee quality is only percolating more and more. Is it about intricately-dialed espresso shots, using ultra-luxe beans? While he loves the light-roasted fermented stuff, plenty of people come for those creamy Thai teas and bubbly Aerocanos. He technically began his residency in August 2023 and wants to keep pushing things forward. His own shop someday will feature longer extraction espresso pulls (Pong says San Francisco’s love of the denser ristretto espresso shot is a bit too face-punchingly powerful for him) and a space that utilizes every inch, so his inquisitive nature already buzzing. “What are other things you can do with your cafe space? How to build community?” Pong says. “Questions still yet to be solved.”