The chocolate chip cookie from Tartine Manufactory. (Grace Cheung)
San Francisco’s food scene has countless giant strengths, but the 7x7 city’s dozens of destination-worthy bakeries certainly has a spot at the top. Certain bakeries specialize in bread, some focus on creative pastries and others are best known for niche items like cruffins or passion fruit macaroons. However, if there is one unifying item that tends to be found at most — definitely not all — bakeries, it would be that simple yet transcendent favorite of all ages: chocolate chip cookies.
Chocolate chip cookies are near and dear to us at KQED since we’re the home of the greatest cookie critic of them all, Cookie Monster. He and Grover would certainly approve of the compact, chewy, beautifully balanced version at Arsicault and the thin, crisp, oozing with chocolate one by Tartine Manufactory. They would also be huge fans of the other four other cookies that stood out in this sugar and butter-filled quest.
That being said, a number of worthwhile chocolate chip cookies just missed the cut but really deserve to be on any “Best Chocolate Chip Cookies” list, especially Theorita, Craftsman and Wolves, the front coffee kiosk at Spruce, Neighbor Bakehouse, Marla Bakery and b. Patisserie. On that note, as Cookie Monster would say, “Chocolate chip important to me… It mean whole lot to me… Om nom nom nom.” These five chocolate chip cookies mean a lot to us, too.
There are seemingly as many coffee shops as residents in San Francisco — yet very few roast their own beans. Then, there is an even smaller group of cafes/roasters that also do some of their own baking for the breads and desserts in the display case at the register. Several SF roaster heavyweights like Sightglass, Ritual and Four Barrel don’t do that. Yes, Blue Bottle does, but they also have the power of Nestle funding behind them. Tartine Manufactory does, but that’s such a sprawling complex that does everything DIY from world-class pickles to cocktail syrups, so of course they roast their own coffee beans and do some — ok, A LOT of — baking as well.
Then there is little Andytown Coffee Roasters, the caffeine pride of the Outer Sunset. If a sunrise surf session in the icy cold nearby Pacific didn’t wake you up in this neighborhood, chances are a cappuccino or a Snowy Plover at Andytown did. Andytown bakes scones, Irish soda bread (one of the owners is from Northern Ireland), muffins, and chocolate chip cookies.
These are the smallest and cheapest of the chocolate chip cookies in our guide, clocking in at $2 apiece and definitely compact enough to actually not be a meal. It’s refreshing to see a cookie that is meant to be dessert after a meal or as a light snack. The Andytown cookie is the most “typical” cookie of the bunch as well. It truly tastes and looks like a chocolate chip cookie that would be in Cookie Monster’s jar when he scoops them up and eats four at a time on “Sesame Street.” The Guittard chocolate chips are nicely spaced out in the fluffy body, as are flecks of sea salt (beware of having one possible bite that has too much salt clumped together like I did). This is a very simple, to-the-point cookie. It boasts a lovely chewy texture that has almost zero crispness to it but also isn’t remotely doughy. The consistency is exactly what you would dream of for dipping into a glass of milk. Since you’re at Andytown, though, the cookie will also be a great asset for dunking into the freshly whipped cream atop the Snowy Plover.
Like Andytown, Provender is a coffee shop that bakes its own cookies and other items (cardamom lemon cake, cookies, black sesame banana bread and more), except it doesn’t bake its own bread for one of the city’s finest avocado toasts (Tartine country loaf is used) and it doesn’t roast its own coffee beans (they use…Andytown!).
However, somehow the tiny Potrero Hill cafe can use its limited space to bake its own cookies, pull espresso shots and slice that Tartine bread for toasts.
The co-owners and brothers, Austin and Tony Ferrari, both have a fine dining background. Austin has years of experience on the wine side and Tony is Chef/Co-Owner of Bernal Heights’ Hillside Supper Club. It’s no surprise that their items baked in-house have a noticeable attention to detail that lifts their cookies and other morning-friendly items above the coffee shop status quo.
The Provender chocolate chip cookie is large, thin, neither crisp nor chewy, yet was by far the softest version that we found. It’s also blonde colored (all the others were distinctly tan or bronze), likely from being cooked at either a shorter than average time or lower than average oven heat — both of which could explain how it’s so soft. However, Provender says that the softness comes from the addition of brown sugar to the dough, along with the critical need to have all dough ingredients at room temperature before mixing and to have each egg emulsified before adding the next egg into the mix. This is definitely not the cookie to dunk in a glass of milk unless you love fishing out every piece of cookie crumble from the glass.
In my notes, I wrote that this is the chocolate chip cookie that seems like what you would expect a homemade chocolate chip cookie to look like. All the other cookies we encountered on this tour have a little new wave twist. The only real twists for this cookie are the flecks of sea salt on top and that brown sugar addition. Otherwise, it’s a delightful classic. There are lots of chocolate chips, almost equally scattered about. The cookie dough doesn’t have any umami kick, but it tastes like perfectly baked cookie dough. This seems like the chocolate chip cookie many of us remember grabbing at a bakery or a corner store as a post-school, pre-homework pick-me-up snack.
What savory or sweet baked item does Tartine and Tartine Manufactory not thrive at? Bread, brownies, cakes, croissants…we could go on and on. Cookies are no exception whether you prefer the petite salted buckwheat or the chocolate chip in the display case on the retail side of the sprawling sunlit complex on the quieter side of the Mission. (Note that cookie types do mostly differ between Tartine and Tartine Manufactory.) Unlike the universally beloved breads, the Tartine Manufactory chocolate chip cookie isn’t everyone’s favorite style. It is resolutely of the thin, crispy style. The chewy, soft cookie minded school will surely disapprove of this despite still devouring the cookie and admitting to enjoying it. It’s not the easiest cookie to love at first, but it always will warm up to cookie eaters.
It’s a good-sized cookie in terms of circumference and is razor thin. The consistency is pliant — not wafer-like, thankfully — and never shatters. It will only break if bent, which is a rarity for the distinctly thin cookie genre. There are lots of chocolate swirls in the dough with one to two particularly dense chocolate-filled areas standing out per cookie, and then just a smidge of sea salt scattered about, making for each bite to be full of a buttery, salty, earthy, chocolatey quartet. It isn’t an organized cookie like the first two, instead providing a bit of adventure.
Every bite has a different punch. The most noticeable taste difference is that flour is more pronounced than the butter, which isn’t too surprising knowing that Tartine Manufactory is particularly gifted at using flour elsewhere in the bakery. That means it’s less of a “sweet” cookie. It isn’t savory by any means, but it also isn’t going to strike that sugar tooth like the majority of cookies will. Though the style isn’t everyone’s favorite, it’s as perfectly executed a thin chocolate chip cookie as you’ll find in San Francisco and defeats many other cuddlier, chewier ones.
The wild card of the bunch requires lots of qualifiers. Yes, Manresa Bread isn’t based in San Francisco (it’s based in Los Gatos). Yes, there are as many walnuts scattered in the cookie dough as chocolate chips. Yes, the thick body and moist but crumbly texture is much closer to a brownie than a cookie. But, this is still very much a chocolate chip cookie at its core (many chocolate chip cookie versions include walnuts!) and Manresa Bread’s baked goods are only sold at one SF location, Verve, in the Castro. It counts. It’s a beast.
Most importantly, we need to recognize cookie brilliance in this guide and this powerful, hefty $4 whole wheat chocolate chip cookie designed by Manresa Bread’s Head Baker Avery Ruzicka. If it seems like the cookie is equal parts chocolate chunks and toasted walnuts, well, that’s because it is.
Manresa Bread has the good fortune of now milling its own flours, which surely adds an additional burst of levity to the cookie dough. It’s densely built but wonderfully airy. The fact that it’s whole wheat flour and the addition of brown sugar give the cookie a delightful caramelized sweetness edge that strongly compliments the addition of walnuts. Everything here is in harmony, making this is one formidable cookie.
You can’t miss the monster Guittard chocolate wafer in this cookie. It’s like the light of a lighthouse, beckoning cookie-goers at the Merchant Roots savory and sweets counter. There is so much to love about Merchant Roots and to eat there, as we wrote about when it opened a few months ago.
Yet, the little market with enormous aspirations has found a steadfast niche for the chocolate chip cookie-going crowd in its early months. The recipe comes from Merchant Roots Proprietress Madison Michael, featuring the brilliant addition of brown cultured butter to the mix, along with equal parts regular sugar and muscovado sugar. It’s a slightly thick, slightly doughy type of cookie, effortlessly soft without being too pillowy.
I noted that this is an “artsy cookie” in my detailed tasting, meaning that it defies most cookie labels. It’s also artsy in that the umami notes of that brown cultured butter do shine through and is a curveball addition, but really soars with the sharpness of the giant Guittard chocolate wafer. Michael says that there are 1.5 wafers per cookie, but somehow every bite seems to have a beautiful balance of chocolate and dough — whether it’s a bite of the big wafer or not.
What once was a quiet neighborhood-only bakery nestled in a residential area near USF and Golden Gate Park, Arsicault Bakery is now as great a secret as State Bird Provisions and Swan Oyster Depot thanks to Bon Appetit’s restaurant guru Andrew Knowlton naming it the Best New Bakery in America in 2016, largely for its fabled croissants. Yes, those croissants are exceptional and worth a wait depending on your level of devotion to buttery, laminated dough viennoiserie.
It almost seems unfair that such an already popular and heavily praised bakery deserves even more accolades for another item that nobody really even notices when looking through the pastry glass? That is indeed the case here as Arsicault proved to us that their rendition of a chocolate chip cookie is the closest to a perfect example of the genre that we have found in our cookie-crazy city.
This cookie has it all. There is a crisp outer edge with a delightful faint smokiness pervading each bite. The interior is relentlessly chewy but never yielding a crumb after a few bites. There is plenty of butter and plenty of chocolate — with those blocks of Valrhona 55% chocolate almost forming a micro-thin layer of chocolate so each bite is nearly the same, but never seeming to be too much butter or chocolate. Alright, we’ll admit there are no chocolate chips here. They really are like chunks or wafers or blocks. Whatever you want to call them, it’s a thrilling recipe.
There is a sense of organized chaos to the composition of the cookie — more like Tartine Manufactory’s cookie than any of the other four. For texture, richness, balance, and pure cookie joy, Cookie Monster has a hard time thinking that he’ll find a superior chocolate chip cookie than the one at Arsicault, but he would be more than happy to have any of these five choices to satisfy his ravenous cookie appetite.