Bread of Life: Chinatown’s Pastry Popup

Bread of Life's pineapple buns

Bread of Life’s pineapple buns

Chinatown Diaries chronicles one man’s effort to eat at every restaurant and food shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, surveying the neighborhood block by block, rice plate by rice plate. Maximum entree price permitted: $10. Search the interactive map here.

The line appears at 10:30 a.m. most weekdays, spooling out from a storefront on the northeast corner of Portsmouth Square that used to — well, that still does — sell bags and shiny knickknacks. The line doesn’t have the volume of the one out front of Golden Gate Bakery, and it moves more quickly than the pack outside Good Mong Kok, but it causes a double-take nonetheless. And the line isn’t all that attracts attention. Tables flanking the store entrance display full-color brochures while photographs of baked buns flare and fade on a flat-screen TV, accompanied by a lecture/sales pitch in Cantonese.

I’ve watched the line for months as I’ve walked up and down Washington Street, and seen the words “Bread of Life” appear on the awning above the storefront and the signs and brochures multiply. Finally, en route to lunch, I stopped by the store to see what everyone was waiting for — and found the day’s stock had already sold out. What was everyone waiting for? I asked another failed shopper who was standing near the entrance, reading the signs. “It’s a bakery that delivers from Oakland,” she told me. Should I come back? She nodded.

According to the store’s website, Bread of Life is a project of the Chinese Christian Herald Crusades, a nonprofit that provides job training and social services — translation help, English lessons, not to mention religious instruction — for immigrants. The shop sells packages of five kinds of baked buns: miniature pork buns, pineapple buns, hot-dog baoand wheat and white dinner rolls, most three for $1.

And so when I joined the line, moving up the steps toward the cash register set just inside the shop’s door, I discovered I had only three dollars left in my wallet. And yet I walked away with a plastic bag filled with an impressively high stack of plastic containers. The bread of life, it appears, makes you appear prosperous.

The miniature pork buns weren’t the sugar bombs you could find just up the hill, but there wasn’t much to the soft, white shell, and it was easy to smoosh the bun like a ripe apricot. The hot dog bao, glossy rolls with half-size Foster Farms turkey franks tucked inside, resembled something I would have ordered every day after school in junior high. The dinner rolls — even the whole-wheat variety — were the kind of material a Housewives of Orange County action figure might insist her doll-house sectional be made of.

So: Pretty much standard Chinese-supermarket-bakery quality, innocuous in their delicacy. But that quality was why Bread of Life’s pineapple buns turned out to be so good. Contrast the waifish, even crumb of a storebought dinner roll against the granular crunch of the top coating, and you have a pastry that is purposefully insubstantial. Community: the pastry.

And only three for a dollar.

Bread of Life: 94 Walter U Lum Pl. (at Washington), heraldbreadoflife.com. Window opens at 10:30 a.m. Tue.-Sat.