Baker Belinda Leong never slows down.
The San Francisco native, who is best known for b. Patisserie bakery, is always looking for the next pastry to try, the next place to eat, the next shop to open. And she is always, always trying to improve upon her signature kouign amann, which something like a caramelized croissant from the French region of Brittany.
Winner of this year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker, along with her business partner Michel Suas, Leong made her b. Patisserie bakery a must-visit destination in a city with too many excellent food choices to count.
San Francisco may be the United States’ most food-centric city, with the food scene’s emphasis on fresh and local ingredients, many farmers’ markets and its easy access to Northern and Central California farms.
Leong is a restless child of that city. The daughter of parents who run a Chinese sausage manufacturing plant, Leong was born and raised in San Francisco.
Her food education ran the gamut from visits to hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants with her mother to working at some of the finest dining restaurants in the Bay Area.
In the right place at the right time
She fell in love with pastry while working at Gary Danko, filling in when the pastry chef left and eventually taking over that job during her eight years there.
Then she practiced her craft in Europe for a couple years, always knowing she would eventually open b. Patisserie in her beloved hometown – which she did with Suas in February 2013.
“I loved the pastry shops in Paris, but they were always very stuffy, but at the same time very beautiful,” she tells CNN Travel. “It’s almost like going into Tiffany.”
“Here in California, it’s laid back, it’s relaxed,” she says, and that’s the mood she tries to create at b. Patisserie while still serving “higher-end desserts and pastries.”
“It’s such a joy to see the customers when they come in and they’re enjoying their food,” she said. “Really, I think I’m in this profession just to really make food for people and see them very happy when they’re consuming the food. It’s really fun for me.”
Her business partner, Suas, is a measured Frenchman who owns the San Francisco Baking Institute, which is where Leong first met him when she took a class in 2005.
“We have the same vision,” says Suas, “to make a casual bakery with a high quality, but not intimidate your customers. Belinda is definitely the creator of all the pastry we make here, and I’m more the mechanic,” putting those creations into production.
When she enters the main bakery, regulars stop by to gush about her kouign amanns, croissants, seasonal scones and the lunch tartines.
Longtime San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer, who included the bakery on his 2018 list of the Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants, slips into the shop during our visit. (Leong and Suas spot him but do not warn the staff, a sign of their confidence in their people and their food.)
Success breeds success
Leong and Suas have opened B. On The Go across the street from their main bakery to get more production space, and they’re also offering a light lunch. They also have outposts in Hawaii and Seoul, South Korea.
They are opening “Mochi Mochi” in San Francisco later this year to serve their version of the mochi doughnuts they discovered in Hawaii. It’s a cross between a glazed doughnut and mochi (a Japanese dessert of rice dough with ice cream inside).
Still looking for inspiration, Leong heads out to eat several times a week, trying spots all over San Francisco.
She takes her staff out to eat once or twice a month, sometimes at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. Some nights she eats dinner at Capital, a childhood favorite in Chinatown. Other times, she might grab a taco at a hole in the wall in the rapidly gentrifying but still Mexican-American Mission District.
It’s Chinese, American, French, Mexican and the local farm to table movement, all coming come together to feed Leong’s dreams and inspire her to create.
“What do I like to eat?” she says. “Everything. There are so many restaurants. I love burritos, tacos, good Chinese food, there’s Italian restaurants, pastas. There’s a little bit of everything here, and it’s good too.”
Her list of favorite restaurants is three pages long.
On a recent visit, Leong took CNN Travel to some of her favorite haunts, always carrying a box of her bakery’s treats to share with her fellow cooks.
Tortillas made to order
Customers wait for La Palma Mexicatessen to opens its doors in the Mission District at 8 a.m., and there’s a steady stream of people throughout the day.
Owned by sisters Theresa Pasion and Ida Ibarra, and Ibarra’s husband Ruben, La Palma has made its name in the Mission District with its handmade tortillas, huaraches and more. Fresh machine-made tortillas are also made in the back and sold in La Palma’s tiny retail space.
“I love La Palma – love it – because I love the carnitas, love that they make all the tortillas fresh,” says Leong. “I’ve been going there for years.”
Carry your tacos or burritos to nearby Balmy Alley, where ever-changing murals protest human rights abuses and gentrification of the neighborhood, which is still heavily Latino but changing rapidly.
Other options: El Farolito is the spot to go after drinking, she says. Open until 3 a.m., “they make the best quesadilla suiza.”
La Palma Mexicatessen, 2884 24th Street San Francisco, CA 94110, +1 (415) 647-1500
Eating with an icon
When Leong walks into Z & Y Restaurant with Cecilia Chiang, the dean of high-end Chinese cooking in the United States, the 98-year-old Chiang leads the way.
Don’t be dissuaded by the tourists filling up Z & Y or the theatrical ways the waiter pours your tea using his entire body. Everyone is there, even if it’s several times removed, because Chiang likes it.
Born to a wealthy family in China, Chiang fled the country before it fell to the communists. She was only visiting family in San Francisco when she agreed to help some friends open a restaurant. They backed out and she kept going, introducing fine Chinese dining to San Francisco with her opening of the Mandarin restaurant in 1961. (She sold it in 1991.)
After meeting at a party hosted by food critic Bauer several years ago, Chiang took Leong under her wing. Chiang still encourages her when they meet for dinner once or twice a week.
But don’t order noodles, Belinda! “That’s so ABC!” says the tiny Chiang, as waiters hover at her every word.
“American-born Chinese,” Leong says, laughing at her mentor’s acronym while still ordering the noodles.
Chiang dismisses luck as key to Leong’s success. “You are hardworking, and another thing, you listen.”
Other options: Leong’s mother used to take her to Capital Restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving Cantonese Chinese dishes. “It’s very similar to my mother’s home cooking.”
Z & Y Restaurant, 655 Jackson St, San Francisco CA 94133; +1 (415) 981-8988
A three-star tasting menu
Benu chef/owner Corey Lee’s three-Michelin-star tasting menu is one of the hottest spots in town, and it’s also one of the calmest.
After working as chef de cuisine and other jobs for eight years for renowned chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Yountville and Per Se in New York City, the Seoul-born Lee opened his own place in 2010.
He received two Michelin stars for Benu in 2012 and a third star in 2014.
Leong occasionally brings her staff to Benu, one of her favorite fine dining establishments, to learn from Lee’s “flavor combinations, imagination and techniques,” she says. “His food is beautiful.”
(Cecilia Chiang also dines there frequently, having met Lee during his time at the French Laundry.)
“If you’re going to actually explore new flavors and new ways of cooking, and try to be creative in that process, you have to have an audience who actually wants that, right?” Lee says.
“My criteria for fine dining is not the cost of the menu, or how quiet the restaurant is, or what you wear to it, it’s more like, what is the audience looking for? How engaged are they to try something new?”
Other options: Don’t want to spend $295 per person (plus service, tax and drinks) at Benu? Try Quince chef Michael Tusk’s more casual spot, Cotogna. “The pastas are the best in the city,” says Leong. “I always love it here. Great simple Italian food and I love the ambiance.”
Benu, 22 Hawthorne Street SF 94105; +1 (415) 685-4860
Other people’s desserts
Belinda Leong's San Francisco
Yes, she eats other people’s desserts.
Stella Pastry & Cafe is known for its Sacripantina cake, which is a simple soaked sponge cake with zabaglione. “It was always my birthday cake when I was younger,” Leong says.
She also loves Zanze’s Cheesecake, which makes “the fluffiest and lightest cheesecake ever. It’s so light, they give you a fishing line to cut it instead of a knife.”
Stella Pastry & Café, 446 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133; +1 (415) 986-2914
Zanze’s Cheesecake, 2405 Ocean Ave, San Francisco, CA 94127, +1 (415) 334-2264