Cupcake in the City

I can’t think of a more adorable pick-me-up than a delicately decorated cupcake. With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, I began to think about alternatives to boxed chocolates, something that would serve as a simple, thoughtful, whimsical, and inexpensive gift that would put a smile on someone’s face. Cupcakes, it seems, would fit the bill perfectly. Apparently, I’m a few months behind the times here in San Francisco, as evidenced by Amanda Gold’s March 2006 article in The San Francisco Chronicle . Needless to say if you read the article, she and I both are about two years behind New York, plus an additional few weeks behind Carrie Bradshaw on Sex in the City.

Nevertheless, I set a challenge for myself: find five of the best cupcake sellers in San Francisco and taste-test my way through their fare in five days.

The contenders: Citizen Cupcake, an offshoot of Elizabeth Faulkner’s Citizen Cake, and for its apt name, the first on my list. Miette, an artistic-bent patisserie in the Ferry Building. DeLessio Market, a new gourmet grocer’s with two locations in the city that have been recognized for their prepared, take-home foods. Kara’s Cupcakes, a boutique-style shop located in the Marina neighborhood. Blissful Bites, a laid back bakery in the Inner Richmond.

Day 1: Citizen Cupcake
2 Stockton St. at Market, on the third floor of Virgin Megastore
Mokka. $3.50. A super moist and rich chocolate cake. Powerful coffee flavored buttercream on top and hidden inside as a light filling, with cacao nibs on top. That near crystallized/gritty texture found in classic buttercreams always plays with my memories of childhood, and paired with strong adult coffee overtones, the contrast was as pleasant on the palate as it was to my psyche. A few cacao nibs sprinkled on top made the cupcake that much more fun to nibble away at.

Packaged in a miniature Chinese food take-out box, the get-up was indeed cute. The woman behind the counter took my suggestion of taping the box closed in teepee formation so as to not damage the peak of the frosting. However, removing the cupcake posed a challenge, as there was no room for even a finger to reach in and lift it out without marring it. Wielding a plastic knife with the accuracy and steadiness of a surgeon, I was able to gently pry the cupcake out of its chamber, in perfect condition.

Day 2: Miette
Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 10, The Embarcadero

Old-fashioned (chocolate with marshmallow) and Gingerbread. $3 each. The Old-fashioned had one of the best “icings” I’ve ever had. Smooth and lush, the marshmallow was gooey and viscous, without being messy. The cake itself can only be described as truly old-fashioned. It wasn’t overly rich or overly moist, but just perfectly classic—exactly how chocolate cake tasted at birthday parties back in 1984.

Opened by baker Meg Ray in fall 2001, Miette is the eye candy of the Ferry Building due in part to second-in-command Caitlin Alissa Williams, the artist of the duo. The patisserie specializes in treats that are visually inspired by artist Wayne Thiebaud. Everything in the bakery case, cupcakes included, has a storybook look about it, in soft pastel colors and matte finishes.

Miette’s Gingerbread cupcake was one that I most looked forward to tasting. Topped with cream cheese frosting and a single lilac-colored candy flower, the gingerbread cake was worlds away from the Old-fashioned. I bit slowly through the cake, dragging my teeth through every dense, moist mouthful. I angled each bite to try and snag just a little pale yellow cream cheese frosting each time, the hint of sweet cream butter juxtaposed sumptuously with the mild tanginess of cream cheese. In a two-cupcake carrier with handles and sides that opened easily, the box used for packaging allowed me to slide the cupcakes out rather than lifting them. Miette’s little handled box was the best carrying device I encountered during The Cupcake Challenge.

Day 3: DeLessio’s Market
302 Broderick St. at Oak, and 1695 Market St. at Gough

Peanut butter mousse on chocolate brownie with meringue and Banana cake with caramel buttercream and butterscotch chips. $1.50 each. I found DeLessio’s mini cupcakes (they’re just about the size of a silver dollar in diameter) on a tip from an acquaintance. By far the most decadent cupcakes in my challenge, the Peanut butter mousse on chocolate brownie was something to behold, a little towering work of art with a meringue tip stretching high into the air, drizzled with chocolate sauce. A compacted nugget of chewy brownie sat as the base, holding up a dollop of light and creamy peanut butter mousse, covered by a soft, marshmallow-like meringue. This was the heavenly sugar rush I had been dreaming about in a modern updated cupcake. The banana cake, on the other hand—a departure from my typical taste, but something I chose for its uniqueness—was a bit dry, lacking the moistness of a homemade banana bread. On top: a round dollop of sugary buttercream that had absolutely no grittiness whatsoever. Butterscotch chips, with the consistency of chocolate chips, were gingerly sprinkled on top and provided a nice texture contrast without being jarringly crunchy.

Though far from being the most traditional, the brownie bite, with its irrestible salty peanut butter goodness, takes the cake for being the most decadent.

DeLessio’s is a new gourmet food store with an incredible to-go section of prepared foods. One of the downsides of their cupcakes is that they are not protected behind a bakery case; they’re on display trays in the self-service area, meaning they're open to more customer contact, and thus ripe for damage or poor handling or germs. Additionally, the options for take-away containers were Chinese food boxes in several sizes, so like the dilemma I had with Citizen Cupcakes’ carrying device, I again faced the problem of removing the cupcakes without marring their presentation. What’s worse, I was responsible for getting the cupcakes into the Chinese food box, too, man-handling these delicate and petite desserts with 12-inch tongs.

Day 4: Kara’s Cupcakes
3249 Scott Street at Chestnut

Kara’s Karrot with cream cheese and Raspberry Dazzle. $3 each. Kara’s Cupcake was by far the place I most looked forward to visiting, as it was a new find for me, though the shop has been open since late 2005. I browsed the website and had set my heart on trying the Fleur del Sel, a chocolate cake with caramel filling, soft chocolate ganache, and fleur del sel. By the time I got to the Marina on Sunday, however, Kara’s was out and the staff informed me that there wouldn’t be any more for “a while.” It was a bit of a let down, compounded by the fact that the shop keepers were hustling a bit too much for the leisurely, gawking atmosphere that I had had in mind. I almost felt bullied into ordering, which is how I came to settle on the Raspberry Dazzle, another departure from what I would normally lean toward. At least it had chocolate. Kara’s Karrot, on the other hand, I had my eye on early and was anticipating wildly.

Kara’s Cupcake uses only local, organic ingredients, and it shows. While some of the other cupcakes I tasted left me wondering just how wide the profit margin was (cupcakes being very inexpensive to make, and at an average of $3 each at retail). With Kara’s, every ounce of organic butter, cream, fresh eggs, and other ingredients shows, making these the best value cupcake on my list. The cream cheese frosting on the carrot cake cupcake, for example, was smooth and as airy as whipped egg whites. The cake was fluffy and speckled with bright orange carrot bits. Even the raisins in the cake were flavorful. As for the other, chocolate raspberry isn’t something I would probably order, though I did appreciate the swirl of buttercream on top, the raspberry essence at the front of its taste, and the velvety weightless texture.
Packaged in a bright pink bakery box, the two cupcakes had a bit of room to slide around. Though getting the cakes into and out of the box was a breeze, I had to balance the box gingerly while transporting it, afraid one might have enough room to tumble onto its side or bump frostings with the other.

Kara's Karrot wins for being the cupcake I'm most likely to eat again, even if it means I have to ride the 43 bus all the way to the end of the line again. Kara of Kara's Cupcakes recently informed me that a new shop will be opening in April in Ghiradelli Square. For now, a trek to the Marina will have to do.

Day 5: Blissful Bites
397 Arguello Blvd.

By the time I settled on Blissful Bites being my last stop on The Cupcake Challenge, I was in the mood for something simple and homey, something that would taste good, but wouldn’t shatter my world and all future expectations of how cupcakes should taste (Kara’s Cupcakes raised the bar a little too high, and I worried that no cupcake would ever be the playful and relaxing treat it once was). Blissful Bites had two flavors of frosting (vanilla and chocolate) on what was essentially the same cake (yellow) in two sizes (regular and mini). Being near to Valentine’s Day, there were sprinkles: red hearts. I ordered two mini cupcakes, one of each flavor, for $1 each. Things were looking up.

Although Blissful Bites had by far the worst packaging, I was almost giddy with joy when the woman behind the counter handed me a white paper bag in which both tiny cupcakes promptly tumbled over. By the time I got home, they had been knocked about, squished side-by-side, smeared together, and otherwise mistreated. Pulling them out of the bag, I realized (as you can see from the photo) that very little actual damage had been done. The frosting, dry to the touch, had already long before become cemented into place.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that these cupcakes were bad. In fact, they were heavenly, if heaven is a place where you’re allowed to put your feet on the sofa. Eating these little cupcakes felt like the equivalent of putting on sweat pants after a week on the road in business suits. This was comfort food. These were the cupcakes that, for a buck, you could buy for children. Why waste $3.50 on a cupcake made with Scharffenberger premium chocolate and Petaluma Farm Fresh eggs when the younguns are just going to stick their fingers in the frosting and mash the entire cupcake into their mouth in three bites maximum?

Surprisingly, when I actually started to take my time and really taste what was going on in these kiddie cupcakes, I began to notice the subtle flavors that make cakes stand out. The frosting, for what it’s worth, tasted like it came out of a tub—but I’m sure not complaining about that. The cake, however, became more and more pronounced the closer attention I paid to my taste buds. Vanilla with a touch of lemon came through in the cake with white frosting, while a buttery crust emerged from beneath the chocolate one. Yellow cake versus vanilla cake. It’s a distinction that’s easy to overlook, but one that made a difference in terms of how I view Blissful Bites: a comfortable family-oriented bakery-cafe that takes itself seriously, but not too seriously.

An Oven to Last a Lifetime

The Le Creuset family of cast iron, enamel coated ovens stands up like an heirloom. These sturdy, durable, and classically fashioned multi-taskers don’t come cheap, running up to $300, but they are guaranteed to last a lifetime. The one I’ve had my eye on, a 5.5-quart round “French” or “Dutch” oven (pictured), retails for about $230.

On the market for the past year or so at Crate and Barrel are similar but more affordably priced products backed by (Molto) Mario Batali. I’ve been tempted to purchase a 6-quart cast iron, enamel coated Dutch Oven, in D'anjou pear green, white, or red for the low low price of $99.95. There’s also a Risotto Pan and a barrel of cooking utensils in matching hues. But upon closer inspection, the Batali line comes with a few words of warning. First, Batali’s Dutch Oven pot edges are a bit thinner than Le Creusets’. Second, the instruction booklet cautions against flaring up the stovetop fire full blast. And finally, users are warned to be careful when sliding the pot on the stove range top, since a little dragging might seriously mar the surface.

In the end, I realized that the lifetime guarantee on the Le Creuset model really was in my favor. The good news is Sur la Table has many sizes and colors of the round ovens on sale, and I snagged mine for $195. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pass it down some day.

'You Should Open a Hot Dog Stand!'

The Mysterious Lack of San Francisco Street Food

“I don’t see why you’re still opposed to buying a hot dog cart.”

The passage below has been, for the past year, my argument when discussing with my significant other what he should do with his summers. He’s more inclined to travel, mainly in Europe, but I think my plan could bring in some real capital.

“I mean, think about it. How many street vendors are there in San Francisco?” I plead. “There’s that one hot dog guy near Macy’s downtown, one across the street from Old Navy on Market, one near the Embarcadero subway exit in front of the hotel, and lately, that family who take turns selling churros on New Montgomery and Second. That’s really it.” All solid reasons in my book for becoming an entrepeneur. “Okay, okay. If it’s really warm out, sometimes there’s a guy who hangs out in the park near the Conservatory of Flowers, but I don’t think he’s in it for the long haul. He’s really inconsistent.”

The arguments against the hot dog venture go as follows:
1. “I’d eat all the goods and never make a profit.”
2. “I’d rather travel.”
3. “I don’t want to own a hot dog stand.”

That last one is mightily unconvincing.

From my perspective, San Francisco is lagging poorly behind other metropolises when it comes to street food, which is particularly a shame in terms of celebrating cultural diversity. In many ways, San Francisco is still a highly segregated city, and I wonder if that physical, geographical distinction keeps certain types of people out of particular neighborhoods. Afterall, I don’t forsee the Tamale Lady doing much business in Nob Hill.

The Tamale Lady, I should note, has escaped my attention for I don’t know how long. Only recently on a Friday night, I was holed up with some friends in the back room of Toronado, a lower Haight Street bar that specializes in imported labels and microbrews. In the middle of a fairly low-key conversation, I lost the attention of three people simultaneously, who sniffed the air for a moment, whipped around in their chairs and unanimously exclaimed, “Oooh! The Tamale Lady!”

When I first saw the Tamale Lady’s get-up, I thought she was selling ice cream, since she had a huge cooler bouncing off her belly that was secured with a long strap tied behind her neck. Where I come from, anyone wearing this gear is expected to shout, “Chipwiches! Frozen Snickers! Fuuuuuuudgie Wudgey bars!”

The Tamale Lady silently opened her cooler and let the crowd come to her. She barely spoke two words but to take orders and make change. She doled out hot little tin foil bundles of tamales, either chicken, beef, or cheese, if I recall, for a few dollars each.

A few weeks alater, I asked my friends who seemed to be in the known about the Tamale Lady again. “Oh yeah, she hangs out at the 22nd Street CalTrain station,” they told me. “The toss up when deciding which CalTrain station you’re going to use is do you want the relatively clean public restrooms at King Street, or do you want the Tamale Lady? I don’t think The City would let her hang out at King Street anyway. They’re pretty tight there. The thing about 22nd Street is that there’s only one stairwell that everyone has to use, so she hangs out at the top. You literally can’t get on CalTrain without passing her. And half the time, it’s irresistible.”

San Francisco, in all its neighborhoods, does excel in small eateries that cater to the take-away crowd... but it’s just not the same as a street vendor. All the quick dim sum bakeries, burrito shops, coffee houses, and gourmet sausage huts don’t amount to the same sensation one experiences when walking the city streets and finding, every few blocks a rugged face and steaming hot water bath, hands that splotch red and crackled. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that San Francisco must have a very strict policy for street vendors, or maybe that the license is absurdly pricey. Or maybe past experience has shown that street vendors just aren’t profitable in this city.

Now that it’s 2007 and the Third Street light rail is connecting outer lying neighborhoods to the main downtown area and the central transit lines (though that’s a very mixed blessing, already proving to be more of an advantage to the wealthy than the blue collar residents of those neighborhoods -- but that’s another story), just maybe we’ll see a new try at some authentic street food. Or just maybe I need to hang out closer to 22nd Street station.

Jill Duffy is a writer and editor in San Francisco. She enthusiastically recommends finding the Churro Family in the Market-to-Mission and Second-to-New Montgomery vicinity for a taste of $2 heaven. Email her at