Unveiling the secrets of Chinatown's Eastern Bakery in San Francisco

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Saturday, January 21, 2023
Unveiling the secrets of Chinatown's Eastern Bakery in SF
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Eastern Bakery has been around 98 years in San Francisco Chinatown. It's the go to place for mooncakes and coffee crunch cake.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's hard to imagine a business that's been around 98 years would have many secrets. But Eastern Bakery in San Francisco's Chinatown has its share.

There's the secret recipe behind its sought-after coffee crunch cake. Or it's other secret recipe for its famous mooncakes.

But there is another secret that, well, is not so secret if you listen to the owner greet visitors.

"What is it that you want?" asks Orlando Kuan to a customer in Spanish.

They ask him where he is from and he replies that he's from Lima, Peru.

Kuan was born in the South American nation and emigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was in his 20s.

Besides Spanish, he speaks English and Chinese.

"I speak two Chinese dialects, both are Cantonese," said Kuan, who was forced to learn Chinese as a child.

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His is an immigrant success story. One that has added to the mystique of Chinatown.

His family opened Golden Gate Bakery on Grant Street.

The bakery is famous for its delicious egg custard tarts, but has such erratic hours of operation that fans created a Facebook page just to let the public know when it's open.

Eastern Bakery also has its own cult following.

After a 1996 speech in San Francisco, then President Bill Clinton popped in for a mooncake.

"He was looking for a mooncake, the lotus one. And we had to cut it for him because he wants to eat it now," said Kuan as he looked at photos of the president's visit that hang inside his bakery.

Kuan said Clinton ended up buying a big case of mooncakes.

Mooncakes are what makes Eastern Bakery stand out. They are traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is typically held in September.

It's a time to celebrate the year's harvest with large family gatherings.

Kuan is proud of Eastern Bakery's mooncakes.

"Even if you go to China you don't get this quality mooncake," he explains.

Kuan said they are the only bakery that makes the filling in the United States, instead of importing it from China.

"We grind the lotus seed, cook it for eight hours with vegetable oil and sugar. It has no preservatives. It's a secret recipe," he said.

In the 1960s, David Lei worked at Eastern Bakery for the previous owner. He said the baker then, Kwan Yo Shing, guarded the original mooncake recipe.

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"The baker when he started making the filling, he kicked everybody out and only had one assistant with him because he didn't want anyone else to know the process," said Lei.

He remembers lines of workers busy making mooncakes around a big table. Some would make a ball out of the filling, then others would cover the filling with a special dough that was then put inside a mold and banged several times until it took its shape and imprinted a special Eastern Bakery logo on top.

Lei, who went on to be director of San Francisco's Lunar New Year Parade, said working long hours as a dishwasher and preparing mooncakes at Eastern Bakery shaped the course of his life.

"I think my success in life was really based on that job. I learned to do tasks that were boring and tried to make them more interesting. It was good for a young person to learn these lessons early in life," said Lei.

Mooncakes are not the only lure. Another is the coffee crunch cake.

Customers like Winston Fong, stop by for the coffee crunch cake. He said its not only full of flavor but, for him, also nostalgia of coming to the bakery with his father.

"We would take BART out here and see some of my uncles and have coffee crunch cake. The sugar, the crunch, and the coffee taste. A lot of nice memories," said Fong.

Not surprisingly, Kuan said it's a secret recipe.

"We got it from the previous baker. It's crisp, it's candy on the outside and a high quality sponge cake with coffee whipped cream."

Kuan has owned Eastern Bakery for 37 years. He has not reopened the inside of the store since the pandemic began.

Instead, he greets customers from a small table at the door.

After 98 years, he does not want to think about what will happen to the bakery when he calls it quits.

"I don't know, I have to ask God. It's about 100 years. What do you expect. Nothing lives forever. I will try to stay here as long as possible," he said as he sat next to his table of goodies, singing a traditional Chinese song and chatting with customers in English, Spanish or Cantonese, but always with a smile on his face.

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