As a kid, there were a few basic food rules that my mom taught me to follow. Always buy avocados the day you plan to eat them, bite into tomatoes like apples during the summer, and make your cookies with nuts. While rules are made to be broken, there is one rule that still rings absolutely true for me: The best donuts always come out of a pink box.
After moving to San Francisco eight years ago, I began collecting regular haunts like Monopoly properties. It's hard to say when exactly Bob's came into my life, but after viewing its glimmering pastries for the first time and spotting stacks of pink boxes behind the counter, I knew I had found my shop.
Through the palm oil haze that breathes out onto Polk Street, Bob's has been dipping and frying since the early ’60s. The Formica counters, barstools, floor emblems, and fryers remain unchanged since their initial installation. This is a no-frills pastry shop – a real gem in the days of the haute pastry and $3 coffee (I'm looking at you, Dynamo). As an ode to a 24-hour, seven-day a week business that has been unfazed by time, I decided to spend a Monday graveyard shift at the counter to soak in the caffeinated comings and goings of Bob’s regular customers.
“These are easily the best donuts in the United States,” gushes Randy Harmon, a born and raised local who has finally moved home after living in New York City for the last six years. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years and nothing else even comes close,” he adds. “They make all of their dough from scratch, and it makes all the difference.”
As he waves good-bye to the counter staff, a fresh batch of old-fashioned donuts rise out of the fryer, and Randy is right. These aren’t assembly-line sweets – each pastry, a little misshapen and nothing like the last, exists like a snowflake.
Aya Ahn, who co-owns Bob’s and works as a fry master five nights a week, says she is always surprised by the positive things people say about her shop. Bob's has been in the Ahn family since the ’70s, originally run by the infamous and musically immortalized Eleanor Ahn. After Eleanor passed a few years ago, Aya and her husband Don took over.
“You've got to be strong while frying [the donuts]," Aya says with a laugh. As she hands me a tray of the infamous five-pound Bob's challenge donuts (individual ones are large enough to take up an entire box), my T-rex-like arms begin to wobble and she steals it back. I tell her that tray has to weigh at least 10 pounds. Without paying any mind to its heft, she looks back and says, "At least."
Amanda Durbin is the 20-something counter girl who works Monday nights – she’s also one of my best friends. When a customer asks for a recommendation, she hands him a buttermilk bar in a bag and boldly states, "It tastes exactly like pancakes and syrup. If you don't love it, I'll give you a free donut." The guy seems satisfied as he puts some change in the tip jar.
As Amanda works the hot racks for incoming customers, cold, gruff men stand outside. Towering over the pastry display and smoking cigarettes as they peer in, they come off like criminals planning their next potential score.
But the real action is happening on Amanda’s side of the glass. With her smoky eyes and quick set of tongs, she always entices customers into buying another donut – "C'mon, you know donuts don't have calorie counts after 10 p.m.!" They all leave with a smile.
Samantha Keane is one of Amanda’s satisfied patrons. She orders a custard bar covered in whipped cream, which is just one of Bob’s many off-menu specialties.
"One night I ordered a custard bar and I noticed they had a can of whipped cream,” Samantha explains. “I asked if they could put it on my donut and it's been heaven ever since.”
Special orders are not uncommon at Bob's. If you happen to be inside when a fresh batch comes out, the choice of hot toppings is yours. Even more astounding is that the staff usually know most of their regulars’ favorite go-to’s by heart. This may not be Cheers, but it sure as hell feels like it.
Just like clockwork, one of the ladies’ favorites strolls in, picks up a cup, and pours himself some coffee. A late-night beat patrolman on upper Polk, Alan Byard has been caffeinating at Bob's multiple nights a week for the past 29 years.
"It's a working place that exists with something to satisfy your hunger with," he says. He rarely eats donuts, though. He points across the counter to a chocolate challenge donut and says, "If I start eating that, I won't stop."
The staff burst into laughter, refuse his money when he tries to pay for coffee, and flash smiles his way. As Alan stuffs his money back into his uniform pocket, he picks up his cup and says, "Watch out for the sugar pushers. They'll get you again and again."
Follow Bob’s on Twitter: They tweet most nights to let you know when certain batches come straight out of the fryer. Definitely show up after 11 p.m., though, since donuts are made around the midnight hour.
And take Bob’s five-pound donut challenge. The current record for devouring one is three minutes.