I come from the kind of family who considers carob chips an indulgence, who allowed me to have Frosted Flakes only twice in my life, and both times for dessert. I didn't have sugar until I was eight years old, when I was left unattended at a birthday party: a birthday party with real cake, not carrot; real icing, not cream cheese; real ice cream, not soy. It was at that moment, as I lay in a post-sugar coma, that I realized the power and joy of this pure, white substance.
The veil had been lifted and my new world was coated in a layer of soft, white powder. My sweet tooth grew steadily throughout my childhood and like the hungry, hungry caterpillar, I ate my way through pages of cookies, brownies and ice cream. As I grew older, I satisfied my sweet tooth by feeding it more "refined" sugar: handmade organic pies, dark chocolate bars, sugar-rimmed cocktails and exotic flavored ice cream. But most of my favorite adult desserts were just fancier varieties of those childhood treats.
In San Francisco, I know where to find these goodies: Mission Pie, Tartine, Humphrey Slocombe, and Hot Cookie: but in a city filled with such ethnic diversity, I figure there must be delicious treats beyond the overflowing and often overpriced joints of the Mission and Castro. I assemble a team of "research associates," a group of all-too-willing friends who agree to join me for various legs of the journey. Everyone is eager at the start, but it turns out that even the biggest sugar addicts can only handle about two hours of tasting before crashing.
I begin my journey on the narrow streets of Chinatown. Sarah, today's associate, scouts the English words on the brightly colored awnings while I navigate my bike through the crowds. (Note: walking a bike through Chinatown is a frustrating endeavor and even locking it on poles proves difficult with the heavy foot traffic). She first points out AA Bakery. It seems a good place to start, if only alphabetically. Inside, the shop is filled with three shelves of sweets, including the Golden Gate Bridge constructed of sugar cubes and red food dye.
We purchase two of the most appealing looking desserts: a mango cake, which is like a Jello-jiggler filled with mango chunks, and a lotus cake. Both treats are strange consistencies – the mango is almost drinkable and the lotus is dense like a fruitcake; but judging from the groups of people eating them, it's clear that the Lotus Cake, unlike its Western comparison, is something people actually like.
The next place that grabs our attention is Eastern Bakery. There are no Chinese characters on the sign and it seems like it's geared more toward tourists. The outside windows are filled with English signs proclaiming it to be the best bakery Chinatown offers and one that reads "We were here before the Great Depression, the Bay Bridge, World War II, etc." Inside, the back wall is plastered with pictures of Bill Clinton tasting a mooncake, the specialty of Eastern Bakery, and a delicacy in China. The text on the Clinton picture explains that the President visited Eastern Bakery in 1996 and stayed for 30 minutes, and that the event was "like a short but big, exciting, and memorable party!!!"
Sarah and I figure that if the mooncake was good enough for our 42nd President, it's good enough for us. And it is. The chocolate covered black bean is a nice mixture of sweet and savory and although it's meant to be eaten with tea during the mid-Autumn lunar festival in China, we don't even need our juice box to wash it down.
None of the remaining Chinatown bakeries satisfy our sweet tooth the way that Eastern Bakery did, so we move on to North Beach, in search of delicious Italian pastries.
Our first stop is Victoria Pastry Company. This joint is still in Chinatown and it serves as a reminder that the Italian district has been steadily losing ground. Victoria has been in business since 1914, so technically it is the oldest bakery in Chinatown. But I figure neither Victoria nor Eastern Bakery needs me to point this out. Victoria's corner shop is packed with a mixture of tourists and older Italians eating pastries baked in their giant, old world brick oven. The dessert cases are stocked with everything you'd expect from an Italian bakery: cannolis, Napoleons, biscotti and their specialty, the Princess Cake, a triple sec soaked sponge cake with green and pink marzipan icing, which looks more like a hat than a cake.
Next on the North Beach tour is Mara's Italian Pastries, a classic Italian cafe filled with old men drinking espresso and betting on sports. Their showcases are filled with more pastries than cakes. Most of the desserts are bizarrely phallic in shape and I'm almost embarrassed to order the overflowing creamy cannoli. Even though I'm reaching sugar overload, I eat half of the cannoli and wash it down with a perfectly timed espresso shot.
Our final spot is Stella Pastry, which offers more cookies than anything else. If you're in the mood for Italian wedding cookies, this is the spot. The variety is impressive and a sugary cookie dunked in a macchiato is divine.
Sarah and I have officially reached our sugar limit: our hands are shaking, our stomachs hollow. We've had too much caffeine, too much sugar and I make the terrible decision of drinking a Zeitgeist Bloody Mary to offset the sugar. Now, in addition to being high on sugar and caffeine, I'm drunk. It's time to call the research off for the day.
Day two's adventures begin in the Richmond, where the Chinese neighborhoods run into the Russian ones, and where, at this intersection, there are bound to be an array of delicious desserts.
The Inner Richmond offers nearly the same treats as Chinatown, but at a fraction of the price. Alex Bakery, next to the Bitter End pub, is a great spot. What it lacks in ambiance it makes up for in variety. There are all of the treats of Chinatown plus an array of steam buns, white dough filled with sweat black or red beans. Their egg custard is a flaky crust filled with a runny center that today's partner, Dawn, perfectly describes as "gentle." For $1.90 we get a steamed bun, a lotus cake and the egg custard. It's clear why this place is popular among the Richmond residents, including a fleet of Chinese postal workers who have settled here after their shift.
Having had my fill of Chinese desserts, we go in search of the Russian bakeries deeper in the Richmond. I have high hopes for the Russian bakeries, both in terms of the pastries and the shop owners. On my adventures, I've noticed a correlation between the meanness of the staff and the deliciousness of the pastry, as if there's only enough sweetness to go around and they've sacrificed their own for the good of the food.
I'm hoping for an old, cranky Russian woman who throws my blinses at me from across the shop. No such luck at Moscow & Tbilisi Bakery (whose sign simply reads "Russian Bakery" in blocky red letters); today's salesperson is a kind, young Russian woman and a gentle mustachioed man. Still, their blinses with cheese are to die for: a perfect blend of sweet and savory that leaves a greasy stain on the paper bag. Dawn and I add an apple turnover, a traditional poppy seed rugala to our order. Even though it's late afternoon, all of the pastries taste fresh-baked.
Our final stop on the dessert tour is John Campbell's Irish Bakery just down the street. This place is higher end than any of the other Richmond bakeries. It looks like you'd expect an Irish bakery in America to look: green paint and yellow Celtic signs and a red-haired girl working the register. And it tastes how you'd hope it would: buttery, flaky scones and mince pies, all perfectly paired with a nice cup a' tea.
Having completed my two-day tour of sugary San Francisco, I have officially hit sugar overload. I'm at the corner of 18th and Geary, suffering from the worst sugar hangover since Julie Marquardt's birthday party 25 years ago. The scenario is the same: I've OD'd on the white stuff. Only this time my mom's too far away to rescue me. So I do the next best thing, and walk toward Burma Superstar to let the tea leaf salad and tofu curry save me from my sugar saturation.
Want to indulge in some of SF's best ethnic desserts? For Chinese treats, try AA Bakery or Eastern Bakery in Chinatown or Alex Bakery in the Richmond. For Italian pastries, visit Victoria Pastry Company, Mara's Italian Pastries, or Stella Pastry. For Russian goodies, visit Moscow & Tbilisi Bakery. And for Irish treats, go to John Campbell's Irish Bakery.