Oakland’s Chinatown is much smaller than its San Francisco counterpart across the bay, but since it caters more to locals than tourists this gives it its charm. There is no overpriced mediocre food catered towards tourists or trinket stores selling cheap souvenirs. This is the real deal where residents go about their daily lives and where some of the city’s best Chinese pastries is found within these perimeters.
Oakland Chinatown Bakeries
Chinese pastries are a world all on their own. They are typically less sweet than Western desserts, and often come in the form of baked buns, custard tarts, or red bean cakes.
I have to admit even after all these years, going into a Chinese bakery can be overwhelming, especially when there is limited English signs and lack of any visible organization at the counter, but it’s all part of the experience.
Here is a list of some of the most common pastries you will find in a traditional Chinese bakery.
Winter Melon Bun
This traditional Cantonese dessert is often referred to as a sweetheart or wife cake and is found throughout mainland China and Hong Kong. Filled with a slightly sweet, sticky filing and topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, I could never tire of this bun’s unique blend of sweet and spice. Its flaky exterior coupled with its almond paste, sesame, winter melon and five spice powder interior seems to me like pure magic every time.
For me there is seriously nothing better than biting into a fluffy taro bun and reaching the creamy, sweet lavender paste inside. The taro paste is usually smooth, but sometimes you get pieces of taro that add extra texture and can be off-putting for those who prefer their paste creamy and consistent.
This popular Hong Kong-style bun has the classic airy, sweet bread exterior and rich, dense coconut filling. The literal translation “means chicken tail bun or cock’s tail.
Another iconic sweet bun hailing from Hong Kong, this treat actually does not contain any pineapple, but is named after its checkered top that resembles the tropical fruit. The top of the bun is where it is all at, which is an ideal blend of crunchy and sweet due to the mix of sugar, eggs, lard and flour. These buns usually do not come with filling. A buttered pineapple bun has an additional sliver of butter (because you can never have too much butter right?) in the center or even custard.
These chewy, yolk-colored cookies had a prominent place in my childhood and I still get excited to see the telltale sign of a few slivers of almond atop a crumbly exterior. There are other variations like walnut, but for me I have a lifelong loyalty to the almond kind.
Egg custard tart
With the array of dim sum and Chinese bakeries here in the Bay Area, locals take their dan tat serious here. The sign of a solid egg custard tart is that the custard is creamy and not too gelatinous and the crust light and flaky.
Red bean paste is a frequent ingredient in Chinese deserts, from sweet buns to moon cakes. Traditionally, they appear around autumn as a seasonal desert to celebrate the harvest, but nowadays you can often find them year round.
Where to satisfy your dessert craving in Oakland’s Chinatown…
Napoleon Super Bakery
The first bakery on my agenda was cramped and had self-serve rows of bins with treats lit up under the glow of artificial yellow light. I felt like I was back in my high school cafeteria as I grabbed a tray and plastic tongs. There are so many options, from savory to sweet. The taro bun and egg custards are especially recommended.
Ruby King Bakery
My second stop was a bit hard to find, but once I stepped into the spacious interior, past elderly locals sipping tea and reading the daily news in Cantonese, I was sold. Each item was clearly labeled in English and the women behind the counter took my large order effortlessly without writing anything down and waited patiently as I took my time deciding what I wanted. Definitely a good starter bakery for those who are intimidated by the whole process and enjoy order and good customer service. The egg custards and the cocktail bun is recommended.
Wonder Food Bakery
The last bakery on my list and the most hidden was one that felt like I was entering someone house. There was a certain warmness to it and I also liked that a lot of the items were pre-packaged for easy consumption on the road. The wife cake, pineapple bun and cocktail bun is recommended.
Things To Do In Oakland Chinatown
This is a great spot to belt your heart out in front of friends and family in the privacy of your own karaoke room. The best part is that you can bring your own snacks and drinks (no hard liquor) for fuel. Take advantage of happy hour prices which are 50 percent off and end at 9pm. Choose from a small, medium or large/VIP room.
Pacific Renaissance Plaza
This spacious plaza is great for bring your takeout or boba tea on a sunny Oakland afternoon and enjoying the people-watching. There are a lot of restaurants, cafes and business surrounding the plaza, including the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and the Chinatown branch of the Oakland public library (clean public restrooms are located in here fyi).
Oakland Chinatown Restaurants
This longtime neighborhood favorite is known for their hand-pulled noodles, with variations like sesame, and hot and spicy. There are also classic comfort dishes like dumplings, but the real other standouts are the onion and leek pancake and the eggplant with Szechuan sauce. The outside might not seem like much, but once you enter the interior and see staff making the dumplings and noodles, you’ll know this is the real deal.
Gum Kuo Restaurant
Located in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, this small restaurant specializes in traditional Cantonese dishes like BBQ pork, roasted duck wonton soup, and chicken porridge with Chinese donuts. The menu is seemly endless, and their dinner deals are a steal for three dishes and a soup for $23. A perk of the location is the cheap parking located directly underneath the plaza.
Cam Huong Restaurant
A casual cafe that is counter service and offers a wide selection of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. One of the most popular offerings here are the banh mi sandwiches (try their BBQ pork or curried tofu) that are dirt cheap and delicious. There are also plenty of pre-packaged Vietnamese treats like fresh summer rolls and hot dishes like fried rice, chow mein, and porridge. Best of all, you can get a filling meal for under $10.
It’s easy to pass over this Cambodian restaurant due to its dark exterior (is anyone even inside?), but once you go inside the calming interior and the delicious aromas take over. The smoked eggplant with minced pork is a memorable dish, as well as the Battambang Noodles. If you want to go all out try the special combo, which includes grilled beef, chicken, and shrimp with a side of curry sauce and rice.
Boba Tea In Oakland Chinatown
If you’re in search of some solid boba, Chinatown does not disappoint. Two notable spots to go to are the Sweet Booth for taro pearl or avocado flavors or I-Tea for mango crystal or guava tea with egg pudding. Both are located in or around the Pacific Renaissance Plaza.
Have you been to Oakland Chinatown?
Photo source: Taro Bun