San Francisco’s $4 Toast Is Actually from Asia

That was a lovely story in Pacific Standard about the origins of San Francisco’s $4 toast, but it wasn’t exactly true, origins-wise.

In fact, luxury cafe toast launched in San Francisco in January 2008, exactly five years before infamous toast slinger The Mill did, when Blue Bottle Coffee at Mint Plaza opened its doors, and began selling $5 toast at breakfast (it still does: two thick slices, crisp and elastic, from an Acme loaf, with butter and jam, pictured below). Blue Bottle founder James Freeman’s inspiration for $5 toast: the toast and coffee sets that have long been a feature of old-fashioned cafés in Japan.

Café Paulista in Tokyo’s Ginza district is said to have been serving toast for just over a hundred years; nowadays it’s a nicotine-yellow retreat where middle-aged businessmen pause with the paper. “I could name a dozen other Tokyo cafes who have been serving beautifully executed coffee and toast pairings for decades,” Freeman wrote in an email. “Toast is not a new thing!” Since Western-style bread was once relatively rare in Japan, toast was something to be appreciated and savored, unlike the American factory product extruded from dough machines, forced into a quick rise, and stuffed into plastic bags.

Luxury toast is a thing in Asia. Last year, San Francisco’s Boba Guys (Andrew Chau and Bin Chen) made us this lovely Hong Kong toast you see above, an inch-thick slice of brioche, toasted and glazed with organic sweetened condensed milk and homemade caramel sauce.

My own recent trip to Thailand offered a peak toast experience on Chiang Mai’s trendy Nimmanhaemin Road, at a butter toast chain filled late one night with university students (I got a plain, buttered slab sprinkled with sugar, and another with thick, sweet, pandan-flavored coconut cream seeping into the slice-lines). In Bangkok, butter toast vendors grill their slices on charcoal braziers before pouring on sweetened condensed milk.

So instead of being a symbol of extravagance for well-paid tech bros, or a thing that builds community, our specialty toast is an Asian import—like sushi or ramen—with a distinctly San Francisco flavor. Seriously, what’s there to freak out about?

See also: San Francisco's $4 Toast Goes Soft

What are your peak toast experiences? Thoughts on San Francisco’s luxury toast? Experiences with toast in Tokyo or other cities in Asia? Let us know in the discussion box below!

Hong Kong toast photo by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com; all other photos by John Birdsall