Custard Tart from Golden Gate Bakery in San Francisco

Custard Tarts

Today I’m happy about my outing in San Francisco. My mission, which I accomplished, was to find pretty, good quality mahjong tiles in Chinatown.

I expected the city to be crazy on a beautiful Saturday. I expected traffic and challenging parking in Chinatown. I expected the unexpected and a possible adventure.

The 40-minute drive flew by because I was catching up with a friend on the phone. I turned on to Grant Ave and found rockstar parking within 1 block.

I curbed my tires even though there was barely a slope. (I’ve gotten a ticket for that in the past.) I took my time studying all the parking signs. I was in a spot that was marked “No parking. Tow Away.” from 3-10 pm, but it was only 11am. I redownloaded the Pay by Phone parking app and paid for my parking for 90 minutes. I ensured that NOTHING was visible inside my car, not even a glasses cleaning cloth, a phone charging cord or a water bottle. NO reason to break into this cute, red Pruis with a happy hummingbird sticker on the window! I double checked locking my doors.

As all this was going on, I noticed a long line of people on the sidewalk and glanced over to see a sign for the Golden Gate Bakery. I was on a mission though, so I walked towards Kwong Sang Lung Company per Yelp’s #1 recommendation for mahjong sets. I looked at their selection, but didn’t get that feeling I wanted for any of them. I decided to check out a few other shops since Grant Ave is chock full of gift shops with a lot of the same stuff.

I got distracted looking at Buddha and Quan Yin statues. Then I remembered that I wanted to get a Ganesha because I had a little one in my car for years that has recently disappeared. I was talking to a lady shop owner about the Quan Yin paintings her husband had done, when I noticed the mahjong tiles that spoke to me. She reduced the price $20 without me even asking. I remembered being in the Yunnan province of China and trying to pay the listed price for things, but the vendors insisted that I bargain with them and pay less. They loved the game of haggling for a price even though I was fine to pay more. I can be so literal and dense about things. I read somewhere that bargaining in Chinese culture can be about relationship building, prioritizing connection and enjoying the process of negotiations. Someone who drives a hard bargain is seen as smart and respected.

I left very happy with a beautiful Quan Yin statue and pretty, high quality mahjong tiles. As I walked back to my car, I noticed that the line was still there for the bakery. I asked a couple in line what they were going to get. They said, “Everyone gets the custard tarts.” I still had 30 minutes on my meter so I decided to get in line.

While in line for exactly 28 minutes, I listened to the many conversations about the clearly famous custard tarts. 5 other people that I observed stopped to ask what the line was for and joined upon hearing about the amazing custard tarts. As I got closer, I realized that there was a glass door that the woman working there would open ¼ of the way to get your order and take your cash (Cash only! You just have to know.) Then she shut the door and re-opened it when she had your tarts in hand. I saw people getting 2 and 3 dozen. The hand written menu taped to the glass listed Custard Tarts, Coconut Tarts, and Moon Cakes. Custard Tarts are $3.75 each or $45 a dozen.

I admit that I am obsessed with this whole experience before even tasting the tarts. I LOVE stumbling onto a San Francisco tradition by accident. People in line were talking about the number of times they had come for tarts and found the business closed. They open and close randomly, do not keep regular hours, and even though another handwritten note on the door says, “Open at 11 am.” People in line say that is only occasionally accurate.

They have no website. Zero online marketing. The Yelp page with over 3,500 reviews is unclaimed. A fan started a Facebook page called, “Is the Golden Gate Bakery Open Today?” posting once or twice a month. People say that it’s sometimes helpful. Golden Gate Bakery opens when they feel like it and people are obsessed. I am in awe of this kind of business. You need to know the deal, have cash, know what you want, and be ready, or lose your place in line.

When it was my turn, I had my exact change ready and ordered 2 Custard Tarts. They were warm. There’s nowhere to sit, so I went to my car and got in just as my alarm went off to alert me to my meter being expired. Perfect timing.

I took a bit of the tart and to be real, it was good, but it didn’t meet or exceed my expectations. It’s a good tart. I don’t think I’d wait in line for it again, but the whole experience was exhilarating and so much fun. I am very happy about all of it. UPDATE: I ate the other tart after it had been in the fridge for a few hours…I 100% get the cravability factor with the flaky crust. I think it’s much better cold.

After about 10 minutes of research when I got home, I found out that the owner is Orlando Kuan, who also owns Eastern Bakery, the oldest Chinese bakery in Chinatown. He opened Golden Gate Bakery in 1976. His dan tat, Chinese egg tart with sweet yolk in a flaky pastry shell is said to be the creamiest, which he attributes to a special, unnamed ingredient. Cool.

I love it when I happen to be in the right place at the right time.

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