Unicorns, caviar and lime-green jam: a taste of San Francisco's gourmet toast scene

The artisan bread hub has been elevating the humble toast to flamboyant new heights.

By Zoey Goto
Published 28 Feb 2023, 07:00 GMT
Avocado ‘toast’ at Hilda and Jesse.

Avocado ‘toast’ at Hilda and Jesse.

Photograph by Timofei Osipenko

It’s Sunday morning in Richmond, San Francisco, and the pavement outside Breadbelly is buzzing. Hungry customers have lined up around the block, a boombox pumping out house music for the queue. They’ve come for Breadbelly’s legendary kaya toast, an indulgent combination of milk bread griddled in butter, smothered in a coconut jam and topped with a sprinkle of Maldon salt. 

“People have always done cool stuff on bread here,” says co-owner Clement Hsu, as he lays a plate of lime-green toast before me. “Depending on who you ask, kaya toast is either from Malaysia or Singapore. Both cultures serve bread and jam, often topped with a soft-boiled egg.” But here, the kaya toast is given a unique twist, with the coconut jam gaining its distinctive colour from the Southeast Asian pandan leaf. “It lends an almost grassy, aromatic flavour to the jam,” says Clement. 

Following San Fran’s trail of breadcrumbs leads back to the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, when sourdough became a firm favourite with prospectors. Since then, the city’s foggy climate, combined with a specific bacteria found in the local yeast, has created a hotbed for specialist bakers. And today, it’s also become a playground for social media types.

At Avotoasty, in North Beach, owner Sofia Pinzon is upfront about doing it for the ’gram. “This is a millennial business and the food is pretty, so people take photos,” she says as I bite into the cafe’s famous unicorn toast: a riot of pink and purple hues, with a rainbow of sprinkles. “We have plans to launch ‘bougie toast’ — avocado on toast, topped with caviar and edible gold, served with Champagne.”

It won’t be cheap, though, costing $50 (£45). Also in North Beach is Hilda and Jesse, a bistro famous for its five-course brunch tasting menu. “I’ve never been a big fan of avocado on toast. It’s a bit bland,” says co-owner and chef Kristina Compton. Instead, she’s swapped dough for tempura sweet potato, with horseradish-marinated avocado and a sour cream and dill dip. “San Francisco has always been a sourdough kind of city, but now we’re making it our own.” 

View towards the 48-storey Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco.

Photograph by Getty Images

Avotoasty’s unicorn toast recipe

2 tbsp cream cheese
1 drop pink food colouring
1 drop purple food colouring
1 slice sourdough bread
25g (1oz) sprinkles

1. In separate bowls, mix one tbsp of cream cheese with the pink food colouring, and the other with the purple food colouring. Toast the sourdough bread until golden. 

2. On the toast, spread the purple cheese on one half, and pink on the other, before sprinkling as desired.

How to do it
Virgin Atlantic flies direct from Heathrow to San Francisco, with flights starting from £394 return.

Published in the US Cities guide, distributed with the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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