Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sun Flour Bagel: Where Yiddishkeit Meets the Land of the Rising Sun

I have to say my grandparents would have been startled. A bagel shop owned by a Japanese family who also bake and sell traditional Japanese breads and buns. Unheard of in their day. In ours, just another example of globalism, I guess.

But, that's Sun Flour Bagel in Carlsbad. Owned by Mitsuhiro and Atsuko Numata and their two daughters, Mai and Megumi, Sun Flour Bagel is an unexpectedly marvelous suburban surprise. Cooking teacher and friend Mineko Moreno told me about it at lunch recently, describing the breads and pastries as deeply authentic and, for her, just like home back in Japan. That sounded irresistible, even if I was a little wary of what the bagels would be like.

Mitsuhiro Numata

The Numatas moved to the U.S. about six years ago, first landing in Miami. A management job for Mitsuhiro with Benihana then brought the family to San Diego. However, two-and-a-half years ago he and his family decided to open their own business. Looking around, he found the bagel shop, already in business for 15 years, and bought it, opening Sun Flour Bagel in July 2006. Of course, with a daughter, Megumi, who has been an avid baker since childhood, it made sense to create a shop that would satisfy both American and Japanese taste buds. The family has apparently succeeded. Not only do customers come from as far away as Laguna Beach and Chula Vista, the Numatas were approached by local Japanese markets to bake for their stores. The family declined, believing that the best way to keep the quality of their baked goods is to continue to make them in small quantities.

Atsuko, Mai and Megumi Numata

The Japanese breads actually take up a small part of the shop displays and are only sold on Wednesdays, Saturday and Sundays. Megumi, 20, bakes no more than 20 loaves of the soft, traditional white bread a day--all by hand and with no preservatives. Toast slices lightly and top with preserves or use thick slices for a perfect French toast. There are actually two versions of this bread. The other is studded with raisins, perfect for a comforting cinnamon toast on a chilly day. The loaves can be pre-cut in thick slices or thin slices or left intact. Just know that if you aren't planning on eating it all right away, it should put in the freezer.

Megumi takes slices of the white bread and creates her own interesting sandwich. She does a version of French toast and in between slices, adds a thin spreading of raspberry jam. You can find the "Cream Cheese Toast" in the display case with the buns.

Megumi, who first learned to bake from her mother, has been trained at a Tokyo baking school. She told me she'd like to open her own shop someday and is planning to return to Japan to work in a bakery to get more training in technique. But, these days, along with the breads, she makes about a dozen different kinds of filled buns, both savory and sweet, for the family shop.

One of my favorites was the curry bun. This traditional pastry draws on a Japanese version of Indian curry, also made from scratch by Megumi. The vegetable and beef curry is mild, creamy and flavorful, encased in a wheat flour bun, dipped in panko then fried. It's a rapturous melding of different textures and seasonings and reheats beautifully in the oven (about five minutes at 350 degrees) if you can't eat it in the shop.

Another lovely and surprising bun is the corn mayo, a flat pastry topped with a dab of mayonnaise and a bed of corn. It's very delicate and thoroughly enjoyable.

From top, clockwise: curry bun, sausage cheese bun, corn mayo

The sausage cheese bun, with dabs of ketchup in and out, could benefit from a better quality hot dog, but it's actually quite good in a pigs-in-a-blanket kind of way. I enjoyed it.

Megumi also makes the equivalent of little sandwiches, the yakisoba and the potato croquette. The yakisoba tastes just like the dish of thin noodles you'd get at a noodle shop, mixed with slivers of vibrant pink pickled ginger and flecks of cabbage, but set into a hot-dog shaped bun. The potato croquette, dipped in panko and fried, is right out of Japanese home-style cooking, down to the tonkatsu sauce (a ketchup and worcestercher-based sauce named for the dish it traditionally accompanies -- a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet).

Transitioning from savory to sweet is the neutral melon bun, named for its shape, not any melon flavor. It's a delicate texture and flavor containing just a hint of lemon. It's topped with sugar that gives it a nice crackle when you bite into it. Wonderful with a cup of tea.

From top, clockwise: chocolate cream bun, melon bun, custard cream bun and green tea cream and red bean bun

The red bean bun and the custard cream bun are very traditional, according to Mineko. While Megumi's red bean paste is smooth in texture, Mineko says that often you'll find whole pieces of red bean in the paste. The custard cream reminds her of the pastries her mother bought her when she was a child, except that the pastry of her youth was shaped like a cone instead of the oval bun that Megumi makes. Then, there was the chocolate cream, a twist on traditional Japanese pastries but upholding the style with its not-so-sugary sweet infusion of chocolate cream in the soft bun.

Of these sweet buns, the standout for me was the green tea cream and red bean bun. Megumi adds a touch of matcha, or powdered green tea, to her homemade custard, which, in turn, envelopes the ball of red bean paste. That was simply heaven to the taste buds.

Come for the Japanese breads, stay for the bagels. When Mitsuhiro learned I'm Jewish, he immediately presented me with a plate of bagel, lox and cream cheese. The bagel, an everything -- and I mean everything -- was open face, piled with cream cheese, capers, a slice of tomato, sliced red onion and topped by thick slices of lox (to be honest, I had grown up putting the tomato and onion on top of the lox but I liked this; the lox held everything below in place, making it much easier to eat).

It could have used just a squirt of lemon juice, but really, it was terrific. When I asked him if he boils his bagels before baking them (this creates the essential bagelness of the roll -- a soft, chewy interior with a crispy crust), he looked at me like I was meshugah. Of course, how else would you make bagels? (I had to tell him of the horror of Einstein Bagels, which doesn't boil their bagels; apparently they test marketed bagels and found that a round soft roll with a hole was more popular... In a word, Oy!)

Mitsuhiro, it turns out, learned how to make bagels in Japan. I thought he was pulling my leg, but he was serious. Apparently, bagels have become very popular in Japan, eaten with cream cheese or used for sandwiches. Sun Flour sells about 21 varieties, including a seasonal "Halloween" bagel, made with swirls of pumpkin-infused dough. I had that for breakfast this morning, toasted with just a slight schmear of cream cheese. Despite my preference for traditional bagels, I have to admit that this was delicious.

Sun Flour Bagel also has a tray filled with small bags of homemade sugar cookies made by Megumi. There are some little hearts, round chocolates and, currently, pumpkins and bats.

If I lived closer to Carlsbad, I'd be at Sun Flour Bagel weekly. As it is, I'm looking forward to my next visit to pick up bagels and to buy some of the pastries and bread. The buns are the perfect accompaniment to a pot of green tea. The little sandwiches make for a wonderful late afternoon snack or small dinner on a night I don't feel like cooking.

New traditions, Nana, new traditions.

Sun Flour Bagel is located at 6955 El Camino Real, Suite 105 in Carlsbad. It's about half a mile north of the La Costa Resort.

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  1. I referred my friend who is a recent transplant from Japan to this bakery based on the post. I just checked in with her, and Yumiko said:

    "It was really great !!! I love the regular bread best. And curry bread and croquette bread were so good too. I will be a heavy repeater, yes, I’d like to go there again as soon as possible!! Thank you for the great information. I’m very happy!!!"

    Great job, Caron, bringing this bakery to Yumi's attention!

  2. I'm so glad she enjoyed it! That's what this is all about!