|VIP Coffee & Cakes' baked pork chop. This platter is the size of your bicycle.|
If you're not familiar with VIP Coffee & Cakes
, on Broadway, the three-tier cakes and animal pastries in the window don't explain why the room is packed, people pinging about the room like water molecules in a kettle on the boil. Peer over the frosting flowers to the tables and you'll see giant pork chops served on platters the size of hubcaps and bowls of macaroni seeded with cubes of Spam. Yep, it's another cha chaan teng
, or Hong Kong-style tea shop
Broadway, it seems, is the Hong Kong Row, and VIP is my fourth? fifth? last? cha chaan teng
in six weeks. This time, I bring an actual Hong Konger -- our intern, Caroline Chen -- who reads the Chinese menu on the whiteboard at the back of the room and starts reminiscing about the tiny cafes that surrounded her school. The whiteboard lists "quick dishes" (tofu and tripe, Hainan chicken, all around $5) and more elaborate specials (spareribs with black bean sauce, baked pork chop $6-$8). It takes almost 10 minutes to snag a server, and by the time she brings over a tall English menu with frayed edges we've decided what to order: Hainan chicken and baked pork chop.
|VIP's cheesecake: It just looks like a Twinkie.|
Hainan chicken isn't a difficult dish
-- poached chicken served with rice cooked in chicken broth -- but VIP's version is no success. The skin of the scrawny chicken is tinted lemon yellow (probably from bouillon cubes), the rice is perfumed with a miserly amount of ginger, and the salted-ginger relish on the side lacks the snap of scallions or the bite of lime. We spend more time with the baked pork chops smothered in a sweet, oily tomato sauce. The meat is gristle-free and easy to cut, and the rice, a little chewy from the oven, has been gilded with a thin film of scrambled egg before being baked.
Clearly, I'm no fan of cha chaan teng food. VIP's pastry case, though -- now, that's another story: Elaborate cakes with bouquets of frosted roses and glazed fruits. Turnovers whose pastry has puffed and splayed as it baked. VIP's egg-custard tarts, stored on a warming tray so their crusts stay hot and friable, are almost as good as Golden Gate Bakery's
(if they hadn't been doused with artificial vanilla, they'd have rivaled the legendary tarts).
And I've never eaten anything like VIP's cheesecakes. The palm-sized cakes look and feel like a Twinkie, with a fine, pale gold crumb. Somehow, though, each bite transmutes from a sponge cake into an airy, faintly sweet New York cheesecake. The metamorphosis is so astonishing I have to return a few days later to verify it wasn't a fluke. Or at least, that is what I tell myself as I reach into the bag to pull out another one.
VIP Coffee & Cake Shop
: 671 Broadway (at Stockton), 989-7118, www.vipbakery.com
671 Broadway, San Francisco, CA