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The Big Eat Back Story: Coconut Buns at King's Bakery

For the Big Eat 2010, we went behind the scenes of three establishments to learn the true story behind our current cravings. Following is the story of #52.

God bless America for places like King’s Bakery.

Just steps from the 24th Street BART station—next to a produce market that sells banana-leaf-wrapped tamales at the cash register and the new Rosamunde Sausage—this Mexican bakery has existed in the face of Mission gentrification for 30 years. Inside, it smells toasty, buttery and sweet. A tattered reflective scrim is pulled down to keep the sun off the shelves lined with bosomy buns, sprinkle-covered cookies and all matters of humble pastries—twisted, covered with sugar and stuffed with cream. Old, cracked, orange-linoleum lines the walls—a decorative touch that only enhances the percolated Folgers and Styrofoam cups. A woman named Francisca works the register and chats in Spanish to the mostly blue-collar regulars who dutifully grab a pair of tongs and a beat-up aluminum tray to pick and choose from the wall of baked goods.

But take a closer look and you’ll notice that the art on the walls includes a piece of the Great Wall of China; listen, and you’ll hear the tinny sound of Chinese talk radio.

And then there’s the coconut bun, a soft roll sprinkled with sesame seeds that reveals a hefty but dreamy mess of coconut and sugar on the inside. It’s a bun I could live on—a bun I find myself eating one too many of. I once gave a sampling to a chef who proclaimed it the best Mexican pastry he’d ever had. Clearly, though, I did not discover the coconut bun; the bakery sells 600 of them a day for 80 cents each.

But despite the tropical element, this pastry is not a Mexican creation. “You won’t find this anywhere but somewhere like Chinatown,” says owner Sam Leung, who opened King’s Bakery in 1980, the year after he emigrated here from Hong Kong, at a time when the Mission District was a rougher neighborhood. Back then, he didn’t have Yelpers raving about the coconut buns (“this shit is GOOD”) but holding back on the fifth star due to the un-gourmet coffee.

Bespectacled and dressed in an argyle vest and pleated pants, Leung runs the business side, but it’s King Ng, his brother-in-law, who’s the baker. “We bought the bakery from a Mexican person,” Leung says of the ad they saw in the paper 30 years back. They did a quick drive-by, bought it and made the bakery their own, mixing Chinese customs with the traditional pan dulce, adding the likes of pork buns. But you won’t find any of the red bean desserts here that you’d typically find in a Chinese bakery. Leung asserts, “Mexican people don’t like it—we know their appetites.”

Leung leads me into the back, past stacks of the ubiquitous Pepto Bismol–pink to-go boxes and massive bags of C&H sugar topped with baking sheets of 40-cent French bread rolls, of which they sell 4,000 a day. (Yes: Four thousand. A day.) It’s clear that the scene at King’s hasn’t changed much since it opened. Up a few stairs, in the cramped, flour-dusted kitchen, eight Chinese bakers are weighing dough and sliding goodies into the oven. A monster of a Hobart mixer stands at the ready and the back door onto the alleyway is open, keeping the hot kitchen bearable.

Reveling in my own it’s-a-small-world vision of an immigrant Chinese baker owning a Mexican bakery in the Mission, I ask Leung—who lives in the Sunset, but speaks a little Spanish now—if he has any favorite taquerias in the neighborhood.

He looks a little perplexed and searches to answer. “No. We hired a Chinese cook who makes lunch for us every day.”

King’s Bakery, 2864 Mission Street, 415-282-4550