S+M Vegan’s Shaobing Is Special

Pop-up S+M Vegan and its forthcoming restaurant Lion Dance Cafe owe its excellent bread to a pizza in Italy — and an injury.

Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called San Francisco the most vegan-friendly city in America. Surely, PETA must have meant the Bay Area, because while SoMa’s Nick’s on Mission is already tearing up vegan Filipino food, the real focal point for plant-based food lately is Oakland. The successor to pop-up Hella Vegan Eats inside Classic Cars West, Gay 4 U is now serving a Dreamy Pepito Salad and Friendship Toast with cashew-coconut cream cheese, while at Eli’s Mile High Club, S+M Vegan has been killing it every Tuesday evening from 5 to 10 p.m.

A six-year project by chef duo Marie Chia and Shane Stanbridge, S+M Vegan — a play on their initials, not any sex-dungeon extracurriculars — grew out of a catering business with an emphasis on baking. Their immensely popular shaobing sandwich, of which there are more than half a dozen variations, is built around Hodo tofu that’s been frozen then thawed to wring out any extra moisture before it’s breaded and fried. This, along with the layered flatbread it’s served between, will constitute the backbone of Chia and Stanbridge’s forthcoming Lion Dance Cafe, a brick-and-mortar they hope to open next spring or summer.

Granted, there are many breads that vegans cannot eat. Naan is obviously out, as are brioche and challah. But a lot of standard sandwich breads — sourdough, ciabatta, most pitas — are typically made without butter, egg, or animal-derived lecithin. So why go to the trouble to bake shaobing? It’s because it connects both their heritages, Chia says.

“And it’s a format that’s very familiar to Chinese culture, particularly Northern Chinese culture,” Stanbridge tells SF Weekly. “When we were in Rome, there was a pizza that was [topped with] just sesame seeds that we got to try. We were eating it and it was like, ‘This could totally be Chinese food.’ ”

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They took the format and “really went with it,” he adds, sometimes throwing in mainland Chinese-style fillings like char-siu seitan with cucumbers and other times gravitating more toward Malaysian Strait street food, like a satay sandwich with peanut sauce and pineapple slaw. 

“I’m Singaporean, and Singapore has a strong bread culture, with Indian breads and Chinese breads,” Chia says, adding that she’s from a Teochew family so the food she grew up with reflects Singapore’s ethnic Chinese community, specifically people from Guangdong province, where the food is relatively similar to Cantonese cooking.

But it was less familiar to the crowds waiting a long time at Eli’s Mile High Club a few weeks ago, where anecdotal reports were that it was spicy. As in, extremely spicy.

“We definitely challenged people with that one,” Stanbridge says. “That’s something we’re trying to focus on as well: not being timid with our flavors, and the heat that we bring, because a lot of times, vegan food tries to be a little too pleasing to everyone.”

“It’s disappointing to see a place that’s Chinese food, but not funky enough,” Chia says. “We’re trying to not compromise.”

This requires a bit of spontaneity for Stanbridge, a baker who started out with Jim Lahey’s no-knead recipes. He kept adapting the basic ingredients of flour, water, yeast, and salt, until he got hooked into making Sicilian-style pan pizzas and experimenting with longer fermentations. Acquiring a sourdough starter for Tartine-esque loaves, he played around with vegan panettones and other fun projects (plus he and Chia had a restaurant in Los Angeles called Cruciferous in between stints in the Bay Area).

Cranking out eight to 10 loaves per day requires “not needing to babysit it during service or having to get up super-early, because I was there until midnight,” Stanbridge says. So, given bakers’ hours, he needed something that wouldn’t require a 23-hour workday, especially because S+M Vegan may add or subtract sandwich ingredients at the last minute, based on the day’s bread. 

While putting their stamp on things at a time when many established vegan restaurants are still stuck in a mentality of “maximum fusion, lots of sauces, and lots of stuff on the plate” (as Chia puts it), they’re not going to make everything in-house. Hodo tofu is already excellent, and there’s no sense going nuts producing your own soy sauce.

“I spent way too much time trying to replicate French’s fried onions the other day,” Stanbridge says. “Why not just buy it?”

Other times, adherence to the craft wins out. For instance, Stanbridge started making Chinese-style buns not unlike roujiamo, those slider-esque sandwiches you fill with meat and slice in half. It didn’t go according to plan.

“I broke my hand one day, and I couldn’t make the buns,” he says. “So I just made that sesame flatbread, shaobing. I’ll just make a flat sheet of dough I can do one-handed.”

In other words, S+M Vegan’s sandwich sensation owes itself as much to that trip to Italy as to a nearly debilitating injury. Stanbridge still does the buns now and again, and he’s working on getting the dough to be lighter and more brioche-like even though it’s hard to achieve an airy crumb without the use of butter and eggs.

“That’s a very versatile dough we can turn into morning pastries like a cinnamon roll,” he says, comparing it to milk bread and mentioning soy-milk powder and an off-the-shelf egg replacer as reliable workarounds. “Whenever we make something, it’s always going to be a work in progress. If we’ve made something and really liked it then you should come back and try it again because hopefully, it’ll be a lot better.”

S+M Vegan

Tuesday from 5-10 p.m., at Eli’s Mile High Club, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland, elismilehigh.com

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