It always makes me happy to visit a Chinese-style bakery. The breads are fluffy, the egg tarts are custardy, and the moon cakes are plentiful even when it’s not Mid-Autumn Festival. In San Francisco, the question is not how many types of pineapple buns you can find, but whether you have enough space to bring home one of each kind. But eating your way through the many sweet and savory delights is only part of the experience. Many of these bakeries were founded or are owned by immigrant families, whose hometown dishes provided the foundation on which to build a life in another country. Thus, some of the foods at these bakeries recreate flavors found in different parts of China, while some may be a product of cultural confluence, with European-influenced cooking techniques and American-inspired flavors. That’s why we’re calling them Chinese-style bakeries – and here are eight of the best to visit in the City by the Bay.
The longest operating bakery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Eastern Bakery has graced the city since 1924. The cash-only spot is a local favorite, especially for its very popular signature coffee crunch cake: soft yellow sponge cake topped with toffee bits and mocha cream. During Mid-Autumn Festival (or any time of year, really), pick up a lotus-paste mooncake or three - while many bakeries import their mooncakes, Eastern makes them fresh in-house, and the sweet filling is gooey and thick. In fact, you can expect a generous amount of filling in most of the baked goods here, from the steamed custard buns to the winter melon cakes. The bakers do not skimp.
You can’t visit Pineapple King Bakery without picking up one of its signature pineapple buns. Popular in Hong Kong, the soft, airy rolls don’t actually contain any of the tropical fruit, but get their name from the pineapple-looking pattern that forms on the sugary, buttery top after they’re baked. The buns are customarily sliced in half before a slab of butter is wedged inside (Pineapple King also has guava butter as an option). The buns also come with several other sweet and savory filling variations, like black sesame custard, barbecue pork, curry beef, and even pizza. But none tops the one with purple-yam (my personal favorite). The glass cases at this Outer Sunset bakery are also full of other baked goods, like red bean pastries and chicken buns. I always order a milk tea to wash everything down too.
Good Mong Kok always has a line out the door - partly because the tiny takeout-only bakery has limited standing room, but mostly because the grab-and-go dim sum options are some of the best in the city. Char siu (barbecue pork) buns, turnip cakes, shrimp dumplings, and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf stay warm inside giant steamer baskets until they’re snapped up. The line at this Chinatown shop moves quickly though, so be sure to study the window display while you stand and wait. After you’ve made your selections, take your carry-out boxes to a nearby park for a picnic, or dig right in while sitting in your car – I guarantee you won’t be the only one.
There’s always a line at Golden Gate Bakery, but the egg custard tarts, with their flaky, buttery crusts and creamy yet jiggly fillings, are well worth the wait. (In my experience, it’s best to arrive just before they open, or the hour before they close - but I like checking Google Maps to get an idea of how crowded it is.) Their other pastry selections are also excellent - especially the mooncakes, which come in a variety of flavors including white lotus seed, winter melon, and mixed nuts with ham. Keep in mind that the hours at this Chinatown bakery can be unpredictable - it can sometimes close without notice for days or even weeks at a time. In an attempt to help confused egg tart lovers, a mystery good Samaritan built Is Golden Gate Bakery Open Today, a website complete with its own Twitter handle - though both aren’t always updated regularly either.
This legendary factory in Chinatown has been hand-making about 10,000 fresh fortune cookies a day since 1962 and was originally founded by Nancy Chan (her son Kevin now manages the factory). Fortune cookies are, of course, not originally from China (there are different origin stories, though many agree they were likely invented in Japan), but the confections were widely popularized by - and have become closely associated with - Chinese American restaurants. Every time I come here, I’m mesmerized watching the large rotating cast iron griddles that achieve each cookie’s signature thinness and crunch. The fortune cookies at the factory far surpass what you usually get at Chinese restaurants: they’re extra crispy and have a nice vanilla scent. But I usually opt for the green tea-flavored ones, or the chocolate-dipped, sprinkle-covered variety, which always sparks joy and reminds me of birthday parties. Interestingly, the most popular cookies here are the ones without any fortune at all: the flat cookies, which are little crunchy discs ideal for snacking. You can also customize the messages inside for anything from party favors to secret love notes.
The draw at AA Bakery and Cafe is the sheer variety - the large cases are stocked with so many colorful cakes, savory breads, and cream-filled pastries. From buns to cookies to tarts, this shop makes it all, so I tend to come here if I’m stocking up for the week or heading to a large gathering. The filling amounts are generous (see: the loaded ham-and-corn and curry beef buns), and the walnut cookies are bigger than the palm of my hand. The other reason to swing by this Chinatown bakery is the mousse and fruit-filled cakes (mango and strawberry are stand-outs) that you can buy whole or by the slice, and nearly all of them are decorated with ornate cream flowers and icing patterns. I’ve ordered a few customized sheet cakes from here, and never once had leftovers.
The standout at Yummy Bakery is the egg white custard tarts. Though there are other Chinese-style bakeries in Chinatown that sell them, Yummy arguably makes the, well, yummiest ones: the custard is soft, airy, and creamy, albeit a little sweeter than their yolky counterparts. Yummy’s crust also leans on the crumblier side, almost like a hybrid between shortbread and puff pastry. There is also a variety of other excellent baked goods here, like purple sweet potato buns, durian cakes, and flaky wife cakes (also known as sweetheart cakes) filled with winter melon. And note, this small bakery only accepts cash or Venmo.
The signature pastry at this bakery in Parkside is the Macau-style egg custard tarts, which are similar to Portuguese custard tarts, or pasteis de nata - lightly scorched top, smooth and milky custard, and very flaky crusts. Mr. Bread prepares Cantonese-style egg custard tarts, too, so you can order both to taste the difference. True to its name, the shop also sells almost two dozen types of sweet and savory bread buns, including cinnamon raisin, coconut, pork floss, and tuna. The almond black bean bun is nutty and sweet and is also a must-order.