Miso Challah Buns in the Sandbox

San Francisco can be crowded, snobbish, dysfunctional, and even gritty. Part of what keeps me here is that it is a city of secrets, of overlooked perches and un-mined corners. The most exciting moments of living in a fixed place is when small discoveries are made, and the city reveals another flash of its mystique to only those who are continuously searching for the new, the next, the unexplored.

Before I get carried away, let me just say that my small discovery yesterday was by no means new to many people living in San Francisco. But for me it was just the kind of discovery I needed to remind myself why I am still living in the city by the Bay.  I finally made my way up to Cortland Street in the Bernal Heights neighborhood in search of a new fusion bakery and was startled to find a nook that seemed utterly distant from the cosmopolitan clamor of downtown or the hipster rush of the Mission.

Cortland is quaint and peaceful and has more of a small town feel than would seem possible in a city of 700,000. To the North of the street looms the green slope of Bernal Hill, and to the South lies the crowded valley and green hills of Daly City and beyond. Quiet churches, carefully tended used bookstores, and charming antique shops characterize the sleepy storefronts.

Best of all, there are dozens of food options in Bernal Heights that I’ve never even heard of. From Italian Vinotecas, sushi joints, local bakeries and delis, cafes, and The Wild Side West Bar, which I’ve always been told is a hidden gem, Cortland modestly reveals that despite its old-school charm, it has much to offer in terms of victual pursuit.

Sandbox Bakery, on Cortland between Gates and Ellsworth, is run by chef Mutsumi Takehara, who garnered her gourmet touch from both Chez Panisse and Slanted Door. The baked goods are made fresh daily and in small batches. The reason I voyaged over the hill to find it was that the premise–a Japanese French Bakery–enticed my fetish for all things fused and hybridized. With it’s off-the-beaten path location and this unique mixture of cultures, I had to go see what Sandbox had in store.

What surprised me was that it is not a sit-down place, not even sit down for a second with your coffee kind of place. There are no chairs or tables, and the tiny space reveals just a simple glass counter with baked goods and a side counter with coffee accoutrements. Pastries included the normal French arrangement of scones and croissants, but what makes this place special are the Japanese-inspired delicacies.

After admiring a bun filled with red-bean paste, I opted instead for the savory Negi-Miso Challah Bun. Delicately filled with scallions and miso and glazed in Sesame oil, this made the most perfect flavorful snack that I will definitely return to. I also bought some gingerbread when I noticed that threads of fresh ginger were poking out of the rich looking rust colored cake. The “normal” gingerbread was just as delicious and unique as the exotic-seeming morning bun, so Sandbox proved itself to be a place for classic and twisted treats. Creative fruit tarts with goat cheese and bush berry or yuzu marmalade with sage definitely caught my eye, and certainly made me want to return for a second visit.  See their complete menu here.

Sandbox is reasonably priced as well; not nearly as steep as nearby Tartine (though I still claim Tartine is the best bakery in the world). My only qualm was the coffee situation. Why offer two different local roasting companies for the same price? Sandbox has both De La Paz and Ritual Coffee and they make each cup individually for only two bucks–I guess South of Cesar Chavez can really pay off–but there didn’t seem to be a need to split roasting loyalty for the same type of beverage. The decision will probably only end up confusing people and making newcomers to the SF coffee scene feel inadequate for not being able to choose.

I stuck with De La Paz’s rich silky brew and happily munched on fresh gingerbread all the way up steep Gates Street back to Bernal Hill. As I reached the top, the view of the lurching streets of San Francisco spread out before me and the sun shone on this Southern side of the city, reminding me why Bernal Heights may just be my new favorite spot.