I am many things: a terrible singer (not that that stopped me from belting Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” one year in a dingy Koreatown karaoke bar with the particular kind of zeal that comes with a handful of light-up tambourines, one too many cronuts, and good friends), mildly allergic to crustaceans, and unabashedly in love with Zumba classes because I can pretend I’m headlining a Latin pop music video for an hour.
Croissant aficionado and buddy-buddy with my 15 year old cousin? Not so much. We’re not unfriendly, but growing up the six to eight hour drive from L.A. to San Francisco might as well have been an entire ocean. That, and my cousin’s family lived a little ways outside of the city proper, so my experiences with the Bay Area have largely been, well, foggy–always passing through, but never stopping for anything more than a box of “sweetheart cakes” (lou po beng in Cantonese: a dense traditional pastry–the size of a beverage coaster–with a thin, flaky skin filled with candied winter melon paste) from Chinatown or inching our car through the crowds at Fisherman’s Wharf.
So you can imagine the dubious brow that was raised when my uncle gave me a last minute call this past December to ask if I’d be willing to catch the next plane up and help apartment-sit/supervise my cousin while he was out of town. I hemmed and hawed, questioned my ability to play mother hen for 10 days, but eventually came around to the idea–maybe I’d go batty with cabin fever during the week but hey, I’d have the whole weekend to frolic through the city!
Between a complete overhaul of the kitchen–which unearthed a tin of those Danish butter cookies I’d been pining after for ages (they were stale, unfortunately, and disintegrated in my mouth with the vaguely buttery exhale of broken hopes)–and attempting Pilates videos on the living room floor, I whiled away most of the week.
I didn’t have much of a plan for the weekend aside from saying hello to the local Lindy Hop scene and two words: Tartine Bakery. I don’t know where and when I heard the whispers, but ‘one of the best croissants in the Bay Area’ is the kind of information I tend to file away in a brightly illuminated and meticulously annotated section of my brain for future reference.
The future in question came rushing at me that Saturday morning. I couldn’t tell you where to go for the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge* or what makes a quality Mission burrito, but I knew that Tartine was 15 miles away, would take roughly 20 minutes to get to, and opened at 8, so if I planned this one thing my entire weekend, I could beat the morning rush and be tucking into one (or five) of those storied croissants before the neighborhood had even roused itself. I’d set my alarm for 6–in retrospect, proooobably a little extreme, but bakeries are serious business and I’m proud to admit that I made it an early night so I could wake up solely for a croissant–and rolled out of bed into a world where daylight was still an afterthought. I shuffled around the dark apartment readying myself for the day’s adventures, caught a ride into the city, and found myself on a stretch of unremarkable sidewalk a few minutes past 8.
Well, not quite. It would’ve been unremarkable if not for the line that had already formed in front of a corner storefront, which lacked any identifying signage save for the sheet of paper propped up behind a window that said “Tartine Bakery & Cafe”. We moved at a steady pace, though, and Tartine’s kitchen/bakery operations are visible from the street, so I was plenty distracted watching the whirl of activity happening beyond the glass (not to mention the giant bowl of ganache sitting on a counter right against the window, taunting me).
It’s one thing to have certain expectations about a place with Tartine’s pedigree; it’s another thing entirely to be staring down a glass case filled with sugar-crusted morning buns, glazed soft gingerbread tiles, quiches, cream tarts, and a bevy of other treats, sweet and savory. There were two customers between me and what felt like the Most Important Decision of 2014 and… I panicked. ‘I’ll take a croissant, a cup of bread pudding, a cappuccino, and that’s it!’ That’s. it. In my most critical moment I opted for MODERATION and before I could change my mind and reach for a tray of morning buns and no less than a dozen pain au chocolats, I’d paid and was sitting at a table grinning like a fool.
As much as I would have liked to buy out the entire bakery, I could not have wished for a better “Welcome to San Francisco!” and “Congrats on waking up, ya big noodle!” spread than the one above (clockwise from left): a cappuccino (I have next to zero authority on coffee drinks, but it went down smooth and did a great job warming my hands); brioche bread pudding that was scooped, steaming, from the pan (topped with seasonal fruits–when I went there was a stellar mix of apples, cranberries, and possibly orange peel–it was like a custard-y hug); and a sizable croissant.
I don’t go out of my way to track down quality croissants. My baseline for a “good” croissant has always been the ones I had the few days I spent in Paris several years ago–I never questioned the French peoples’ ability to make fine pastry. In the States, however, my occasional encounters have been soft, tragic things with a lingering aftertaste of artificial butter.
Tartine’s croissant? I tore at one end, did a magnificently poor job of containing the shower of flaky pastry from scattering across my plate/table/floor, and yes. Wow, yes. A shatteringly flaky exterior that almost reflects light off of its burnished, dark brown shell, giving way to pillowy layers upon intensely buttered layers.
“But Julia,” you might screw up your nose and say, “It looks burnt!”
Burnt? I prefer “character” and it’s what every soggy crescent in a carton should aspire to be–that added oomph of flavor absolutely makes it for me. This croissant is worldly. This croissant is the Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch of the croissant world. Heck, I’d date this croissant** if it were a person, but until then it’s one of the best bites I’ve had in recent memory.
* And I still can’t. After stuffing myself with pure pastry happiness, I ended up ambling a good ways over to Golden Gate Park, which has a very deceptive name because there is. NO. VIEW. of the Golden Gate. from Golden Gate Park! My completely entranced and
100% lost and confused wanderings for the next two and a half hours brought me Japanese gardens, impeccable landscaping, and a buffalo paddock(??), but not a single orange tower 😦 It’s a marvelous space, though! And even better with the synchronized rollerskating dance troupe on Sundays.
** Figure of speech. I try to be an open-minded individual, but I think I’d draw the line at “croissant in a past life.” Besides, he’d be a total flake.
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Monday | 8-7
Tuesday & Wednesday | 7:30-7
Thursday & Friday | 7:30-8
Saturday | 8-8
Sunday | 9-8