Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pangea Bakery Café: A Delicious Innovation Village

In the very center of the heart of the Convoy District is one of the few eateries on Convoy St. that isn't ensconced in a strip mall or plaza. That would be Pangea Bakery Café. Opened four years ago by Charles Wang, a Taiwanese immigrant, and now also run with his son Ping, a Stanford grad who is a high-tech entrepreneur, Pangea reflects the changing landscape of this Pan Pacific part of San Diego.

Walk into the bakery and you'll find tables filled with cellophane-wrapped pastries--sweet and savory--whose origins reflect the Wangs' Taiwanese heritage. The striped sweet potato and red bean buns and the mung bean buns topped with sesame seeds are just two of a vast menu of Taiwanese-style buns baked daily on site.

Ping explained the origin of the cafe's name. Pangea was the ancient supercontinent that existed before the continents split up. His commitment to the eatery is to evolve it from its Taiwanese roots to embrace the entire Pan Pacific and more. It's also his commitment to the area now known as the Convoy District, whose borders form a triangle from the 52 freeway south within the geography between the 163 and the 805, reaching the point around Aero Dr. and Convoy where the two freeways meet. This district is headed to becoming a BID--or Business Improvement District--and one of its founders is Ping, who is also an organizer of this Saturday's San Diego Night Market. Even Pangea reflect's Ping's bigger plans. You'd think that this space is simply a bakery and cafe. In fact, he operates a business incubator on the second floor, an experimentation space with a 3D printer where food innovators can try out ideas for 3D printed food, and a pop-up space for food entrepreneurs, as well as a large event room in the back.

"I like to call it an innovation village," he says. "It's a place for mixing and crossing cultures and ideas."

But let's get back to the bakery for the moment. If you're familiar with 85°C Bakery Cafe, a Taiwanese concept that spread across the U.S., including Orange County, the treats here at Pangea would be familiar. And it's no accident. When Charles Wang immigrated to San Diego and was trying to identify a business to launch, he was hoping to bring 85°C to San Diego, but they weren't interested. So, according to his son, he decided to fill that need with his own bakery and launched Pangea. Charles Wang traveled back to Taiwan and consulted with master bakers as well as attended baking classes. He brought back both recipes and experienced colleagues to consult as he got the business up and running.

So, you'll find traditional buns that are light and moist, mixing French technique and pastry origins with traditional Asian ingredients, like red bean paste, sweet potato, and mung beans. And the pastries are far less sweet than traditional French fare.

I fell in love with the green onion bun that reminded me of a roll I used to get at the Diamond Bakery in L.A. Divided into three distinct segments, the bun smells heavenly when heated up, with the onion scent becoming sweet and complementing the tender, chewy vaguely sweet bread.

Since Taiwan is a tropical country, one of the most popular fruits in the region is pineapple. The pineapple has a distinct motif in the pastries at Pangea. The poluo buns here have the cross-hatch and hard, crispy top reminiscent of a pineapple, although it's not used as an ingredient.

The taro poluo bun is a purple confection that, again, doesn't include pineapple as an ingredient, but undernearth the crispy exterior, you'll find a filling of sweet taro.

Where pineapple actually does come into play are the traditional square pineapple cakes. The cake itself reminds me of the cakey fig newton cookie. Instead is a delicate compote of pineapple.

I also went a bit crazy over their cookies. The almond cookie is a paper thin sweet, as delicate as a Florentine cookie, filled with almond slices, and crispy as brittle. The Earl Grey cookie is reminiscent of shortbread in texture with a delicate infusion of Earl Grey to give it a unique smokiness. These both are addictive.

Want savory? You can find ham and cheese croissants, hot dog buns, ham and cheese bread, a bun filled with pork pate, another that actually looks like a sesame bagel filled with tun, and a pork bun with barbecue pork. The cross-cultural borrowing from one Asian culture to another is reflected in many of these pastries. The Taiwanese interpretation has a ready explanation, as Ping explained. "Taiwan has shifted hands so many times over the centuries that it became a crossroads of influences, including culinary. It's a crucible of intermingling cuisines, including baking and the pastry arts."

And, this is where the irony of the Pangea idea comes in. After all these years, 85°C is now coming to San Diego at the corner of Genesee and Balboa. So, what spurred the original business is now spurring change. Ping's innovation village will innovate and become more Pan Asian as he and his father make plans to expand the concept to reflect that crucible. They hired pastry chef Jerome Chang, known for fusion concepts, to consult and guide them into a broader, more cross-cultural approach to pastry. And Ping is looking to bring in vendors to add to the mix as part of his "in-provision" food incubator.

So, this innovation village will build on its current success to meet a new challenge and epitomize what is burgeoning in the Convoy District--a unique intermingling of Asian and other cultures in a part of town that is constantly evolving.

Pangea Bakery Cafe is located at 4689 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa. And, be sure to check out the San Diego Night Market on Saturday, Oct. 4 from 4 p.m. to midnight on Engineer Road near Convoy. There will be plenty of interesting food and entertainment. Check out the website to get more information.

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