Is there anyone in San Francisco ― well, anyone who eats pork ― who doesn't like baked char siu bao? They're as universally pleasing as pizza and spaghetti, as embedded into the food scene as organic baby lettuces. Cantonese baked buns can be found in almost every major city in the country, but few American cities boast quite so many Chinese bakeries in neighborhoods quite so far apart as Portola, Parkside, and Chinatown.
And of all the baked char siu bao we've eaten in Portola, Parkside, and Chinatown, the most iconic we've tried come from a dim, generically named bakery in the Sunset. Cue-ball sized, Cafe Bakery's buns are not as fragile as some of the blowsy puffballs some bakeries sell. We can fist one without crumpling it: The glossy, evenly browned shell will give, then bounce back. Bite through, though, and we find the bun is neither tough nor too thick. Chopped pork immediately spills out ― meaty, tender, none too syrupy but maximally rich. Are char siu bao breakfast or dessert, a meal or a snack? As with any universally loved food, the answer is, of course: all of the above.