Gingerbread Cupcake at Miette
Miette's gingerbread cupcake ($3.25) is remarkably complex in flavor. It’s made with molasses, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, and dark stout beer. "Tastes like Christmas!" one taster declared, and I fully understand the sentiment. Topped with a tangy-sweet cream cheese frosting, this is, indeed, a cupcake that is holiday-worthy, and certainly one worth celebrating.
Lemon Poppy Seed and Brooklyn Blackout from Baker & Banker
If I were to eat cupcakes every day for the rest of my life, they would be cupcakes from Baker & Banker. I know, it's a weighty declaration, but these cupcakes are that good. They are exemplars of incredibly, moist cake, perfectly proportioned frosting, and exceptionally high quality ingredients.
My favorite, hands down, was the lemon poppy seed. The cake flavor was delicate, and combined with the vanilla cream cheese frosting, I found my eyes widening as each bite proved more delicious than the last. The Brooklyn Blackout was chocolate lover's heaven—molten with chocolate and impossibly rich—it upped my idea of a cupcake's potential to be a special occasion dessert. Baker & Banker's cupcakes are available for order, with a minimum of 6 per flavor (at $3.50 per cupcake).
Meyer Lemony Lemon and Fleur de Sel Cupcakes at Kara's Cupcakes
Kara's Cupcakes may be one of the more well-known cupcake providers in the Bay Area, with 2 locations in San Francisco, 4 others throughout the Bay Area, a presence at SFO, and a roaming "karavan" (you guessed it, a cupcake-selling van). But considering the overall quality of Kara's (not to mention their affinity for alliteration), I'm pretty okay with that. There is a multitude of flavors to choose from, but we were particularly big fans of the Meyer Lemony Lemon and Fleur de Sel Cupcakes ($3.25 each). The Meyer lemon is comprised of a light, vanilla-flavored cake filled with lemon curd and topped with lemon buttercream. The frosting was wonderfully light and the tangy-sweet combination of flavors worked well. The Fleur de Sel was as rich as the lemon was light. Chocolate cake is injected with caramel, topped with chocolate ganache and sprinkled with salt. The frosting was a little thick for my taste (and dominated any caramel flavor coming from the filling), but I loved the sprinkle of salt with the rich chocolate, and didn't mind at all as the cake fell apart from being so moist.
Grandma Tea Cake, Snickerdoodle, and Confetti Cupcakes from Sibby's Cupcakery
This mostly to-go operation tucked away by the train tracks in downtown San Mateo makes stellar cupcakes in good old-fashioned flavors. Take Grandma's tea cake. Chocolate cake is injected with cream cheese frosting and chocolate chips, then topped with rich chocolate fudge. Delicious, but not so rich that you find yourself struggling to finish it. Or the snickerdoodle—cinnamon-sugar cake is coated in vanilla cream cheese frosting and sprinkled with cinnamon—a simple, but perfectly executed combination. Most surprising was the confetti surprise—which looks like it might be far too sweet. The cake is a simple, moist vanilla, the frosting a well-balanced vanilla cream cheese.
Eating Sibby's, that's the word I keep coming back to: balance. Their cupcakes have the right amount of sweetness, topped with the right amount of frosting. And the fact that they use high-quality ingredients is evident in every bite.
Sibby's cupcakes are available for advanced order (minis are $24 per dozen; regular-sized are $39 per dozen), though sometimes if you swing by the bakery, you can get some of the fun flavors they're baking up that day.
Gentlemen Prefer Reds and Hella Nutella at That Takes the Cake
I became a fan of That Takes the Cake from the moment I stepped into their demure little shop on Union Street. A dapper, well-dressed gentleman was working the counter, playing Miles Davis at a volume some would call loud and I would call appropriate. My good feelings were justified when I bit into their red velvet cupcake, cleverly called the Gentlemen Prefer Reds ($2.95). As a general fan of red velvet, I'm aware that when it's good, it's amazing; when it's sub par, it's dry and underwhelming. This most definitely fit into the amazing category—moist, flavorful, and decadent, it was topped with a textbook-perfect tangy cream cheese frosting. Another favorite was the Hella Nutella ($3.25), yellow caked filled with Nutella and topped with chocolate hazelnut frosting. You could put Nutella on cardboard and I'd probably eat it, so this combination was a particular treat. The cake was not too sweet, and the frosting was tasty without taking away from the flavor of the Nutella-filled center.
Carrot Cake and Chocolate Chocolate Salt Cupcakes at Pinkie's Bakery
Just about everything I've tried at Pinkie's Bakery is delicious. So I was happy to find that their cupcakes ($3.25 each, $2 for a mini) were no exception. I loved the chocolate chocolate salt. The rich chocolate was on par with Baker & Banker's Blackout, and the touch of salt worked as well (if not better) than on Kara's version. Another favorite was the classic carrot cake—laced with cinnamon and topped with a perfectly smooth cream cheese frosting. This was a prime example of a classic done right.
Basil Lemon Blueberry Cupcake at Kingdom Cake
Kingdom Cake is so nondescript you might well miss it walking down Union Street in North Beach. But should you find yourself at the little take-away window, you'll find a full-blown cupcake operation. Kingdom Cake primarily bakes for pre-orders, but you can by a pre-packaged mini dozen ($20) if you stop by from Thursday to Sunday between noon and 6 pm. It's also a good way to sample many of their flavors. Though the cake quality doesn't quite compete with some others in this roster, we were struck by the surprising and delicious flavor combination of the basil lemon blueberry cupcake. Lemon and blueberry already seem like a pairing that should occur more frequently, and the hint of basil added a level of savory freshness.
Coconut S'mores Cupcake at Cups and Cakes Bakery
Cups and Cakes may not make the absolute best cupcakes in San Francisco, but they certainly get points for creativity. With flavors like pancake breakfast, mud pie, and root beer float, their sense of fun is evident in their baked goods. A real stand-out was the coconut s'mores cupcake ($2.15 for a mini, $3.35 for a regular). Coconut cake is topped with chocolate ganache and a toasted marshmallow cap. The cake isn't the most moist (and I question the use of small paper cups—they're awkward to remove), but the coconut flavor is nothing short of brilliant in combination with the chocolate and toasty marshmallow flavor.
Fig Cake with Salted Caramel Frosting at Citizen Cake
Citizen Cake hits it out of the park with their fig cupcake topped with salted caramel frosting ($3.25). Fig and salted caramel strike me as such rich, multifaceted flavors individually—together, the combination was irresistible and perfect for a crisp fall day.