Cassava Bakery & Cafe putting down roots on Balboa Street
In the few blocks between 35th and 39th avenues on Balboa Street in the outer Richmond District, time seems to stand still. Simple Pleasures is the oldest coffee shop in the district. Kam’s Chinese Restaurant has been a neighborhood staple for almost 40 years. Gus’ Discount Tackle, more than 50 years. The Balboa Theater? Since 1926. A daunting history for the new kid on the block: Cassava Bakery and Café, which is slated to open the week of March 5.
Aiming to bring some modern flavor to the neighborhood, Chef/Owner Kristoffer Toliao and Managing Partner Yuka Ioroi were busy with their final preparations on a recent afternoon. The pair met while working in the restaurant industry in Los Angeles, and moved together to San Francisco five years ago where they worked at various high-end restaurants (Toliao has worked at luxury hotels, the most recent being Luce, at the InterContinental Hotel, and Ioroi was a mixologist at Starbelly in the Castro). They were also responsible for the underground dinner-party phenomenon Family Meal Collective, which made a splash in San Francisco foodie news in 2009.
After 10 years of working in the fine-dining scene, Toliao said, they felt it was time to do their own thing. “What better way than to start small?” he said. “We wanted to do a homey neighborhood type of café, and start from humble beginnings.”
Cassava’s space was previously occupied by Le Bread bakery, before its owner sold it. Toliao and Ioroi found out about the space six months ago, and they fell in love with the neighborhood. The name Cassava Bakery and Café was taken from one of Toliao’ favorite desserts from his Filipino background. The cassava is also a type of edible tuberous root, also known as yuca.
The similarity of “yuca” to “Yuka” provided another connection to the starchy root. “When I moved here from Japan, in high school, all the Mexican kids always would call me Yuca, saying, ‘Hey, you potato!’ So we thought it represented us both,” Ioroi said.
Cassava’s quaint and cozy space is awash in sky blue, light woods and natural light. The “homestyle” food – soups, salads, sandwiches, pastries and baked goods – reflects the refined technique of the chef, yet is surprisingly affordable given its pedigree. A “Japanese Breakfast” of stuffed rice balls, miso soup, onsen tamago and house-made pickles is available for $6, and a foccaccia panini sandwich of heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, sustainably-raised prosciutto and house-made pesto with a side salad goes for $7. They also offer house-made cookies, such as peanut butter and cornflake, or savory herbs and sea salt.
That focus on reasonable prices is deliberate. Ioroi said, “When we make something, I think ‘What would I pay for it?’ And I don’t want to go over that price. Just because it’s organic, do I charge a dollar more? No, I wouldn’t.”
Toliao added, “From the beginning it’s been neighborhood-driven. My focus is these people who live and work in this immediate radius. There are a lot of high-school kids that come to this street, lots of families who live here. … They want to be able to go out, and we want to provide affordability. Coming from where I used to work, transitioning to this is definitely a wake-up call, because I want to be able to afford what I’m making.
Their experience in running an underground dinner club will also translate into the pop-up dinners they will occasionally feature at the café. Aside from serving primarily breakfast and lunch, they plan to hold these dinners monthly, through email lists and announcements made on social networks.
This is the kind of cool hipster thing that would be more likely found in the Mission, or even Noe Valley or Bernal Heights. But in the sleepy Outer Richmond? Why this neighborhood? Ioroi admits it was primarily the affordability.
Toliao said, “Also, when we’d come by and visit before, we saw potential, and the people who live here, our neighbors and fellow business owners, are very friendly and gracious. So why not? That’s what we love.”
“It’s so pretty,” Ioroi added. “We appreciate it more, people are so nice out here. The downtown or Mission District restaurant scenes, there can be a lot of ego and it’s nice to get out of it and be on our own and focused on the neighborhood.”
Their enthusiasm for their adopted ‘hood is unmistakable. As a couple entered through the door, assuming the brightly-lit café was open for business, Ioroi immediately jumped up to greet them, told them about their upcoming opening plans and cheerfully offered some homemade brownies as a consolation of sorts.
She went on to talk about the new neighbors they have been meeting, such as the owners of Balboa Florist, Crown Hardware and Purusha Yoga, saying, “People and businesses here put an effort into building a community, and it benefits everybody. We’re very humbled how they are all so welcoming to us and definitely want to be a part of this neighborhood.”
She also wants to let the neighbors know that “we’d love to have you over for lunch, and hear your stories.”
Cassava Bakery & Café: 3519 Balboa St (between 36th & 37th)