Before I was a food blogger, I was a Chowhound. This occurred out of necessity when I first moved to the Bay Area over seven years ago. I had come from Southern California -- a place where I had lived my whole life and where I knew numerous hole-in-the-wall, amazing restaurants. Once I got here, I had bad meal after bad meal. Add the fact that I was homesick and it was June and like 10 degrees Fahrenheit out, and you may begin to understand my despair.
Then there was The Day Of The Two Bad Meals. I'd already had a bad lunch and for dinner my friend Tricia and I decided to eat close to our new Richmond District apartment. I burst into tears as I tried to eat horrible spaghetti, and vowed that I had to find a better way. I had learned that even though there are some really fantastic restaurants in San Francisco, there are also some really vile restaurants out there -- and when you're new it can sometimes be a minefield.
So I found Chowhound. And that was the beginning of delicious meal after delicious meal. Seven years later, I have a love-hate relationship with Chowhound, but I will always be grateful to the members of the boards for showing me the ropes when I was still getting my bearings in this new town.
Early on, we had a lot of "Chowdowns" where members of the community would gather to have a meal at a restaurant. There were certain rules to these events, and one of them had to do with assigning one person to transcribe the menu for the boards. I think because he hated being the transcriber, Derek (now chowfun_derek on the boards) often plied us with egg tarts from Golden Gate Bakery. He'd pick them up from the bakery right before our Chinatown meals and we would eat them still warm. We always let him off the hook for the transcription -- in fact I think that gift of the egg tarts let him get away with a lot.
Derek once told me that he discovered Golden Gate Bakery on his first day in San Francisco in 1970. "I had my suitcases and was walking down Grant, and I spied a long line and decided to just get in it to see what everyone was buying." It was the first bite of food he ate in San Francisco, and he now uses it as a "culinary touchstone" in the city.
Golden Gate Bakery is a very small bakery on Grant Avenue in Chinatown. They have several sweet and savory items, and are famous for their holiday moon cakes, though I have to admit that I only have eyes for their macaroons and their egg tart -- a light, flaky pastry tart that is filled with a warm, sweet, eggy custard. The pastry is really the star of this hand held delight, and when it's filled with egg custard that is slightly firm and not overly sweet you bite into a delicious treat. The macaroons are on the small side, very crunchy on the outside, and very basic with delicious coconut filling. They're my favorite in the city.
Going to Golden Gate Bakery is an experience. I went there on Saturday night and got in line with the throngs. There were several tourists behind me who didn't understand the process. "I think that they're confused," said one tourist, referring to the many employees who were standing around seemingly doing nothing while customers behind the counter just stood and waited. "No, they're waiting for the new batch to come out," I explained, feeling a bit like I was trying to explain what Willy Wonka was doing in his Chocolate Factory. One employee busied herself by preparing a mound of pink boxes. "I think that she probably has enough," grumbled the tourist. I smiled to myself, knowing that all those boxes would be filled very soon. Sure enough, several trays of egg tarts came out at once and the pink pastry boxes were quickly filled.
The line always snakes out the door and when you finally make it inside, a consistent skit ensues. If the item that you want is available, then you're in and out in a couple of minutes. More likely, however, is that your item won't be available. Then you call out your order, and they use a walkie-talkie to talk to the kitchen. There's lots of conversation back and forth before the woman finally tells you how long it will be. I've waited up to 20 minutes for egg tarts to come out of the oven. There's no cooling period -- if you get them right out of the oven, they will be inedibly hot for a few minutes. If you order several, the ladies will give you the egg tarts in a pink box that is vented for the steam.
There was recently a mini-crisis on the Chowhound boards, as Golden Gate Bakery closed inexplicably. When it was finally reported that the pastry maker had died, many speculated and wondered whether we had seen the end of the amazing egg tart. The store was closed for over a month, and the re-opening was delayed several times. "What I really hope they are doing is going back to their homeland ... to find a replacement egg tart chef who can replicate that signature flakey (sic) crust/exterior." said one person on the boards. Happily, the bakery re-opened last week and it's as good as it's always been.
If you're ever in Chinatown and aren't in a hurry, join the longest line on Grant Avenue to find your bliss. If you're going to Chinatown just to visit Golden Gate Bakery, call ahead first. They take a month off each summer, and are sometimes closed on random days.