Going to the grocery store is a mundane process. I head out to Berkeley Bowl or Trader Joe’s, I wend my way through the aisles and I get the things I usually get. Ho hum. Going to the bakery is completely different. It’s a specialized errand, one I undertake only for the pleasure it will bring me and my dinner guests. In a time when gluten is made out to be a villain, the search for baked goods takes on a heroic cast, a defense of something long sacred now found in disfavor. At a moment when carbs must be counted, rationed and controlled, why waste your taste and your time on pedestrian fluff? Bread and pastries are too important and too delicate, too reliant on freshness and too potentially pleasurable to get whatever they’ve got on the racks at the store. When you want something special, you have to go somewhere special.
In the East Bay, I have a few options. When I first moved here, I found Semifreddi’s baguettes on the shelves at Trader Joe’s. Following the trail of delicious breadcrumbs, I found its location in Claremont. The shop smells incredible, and it offers some of the best sourdough that can be found anywhere in the Bay. It sells to outlets all over the area, but nothing compares to buying straight from its main counter.
Closer to home, I can always hit Arizmendi’s in Oakland. Arizmendi’s is both a bakery and a pizzeria, with the result that it makes the best cheesy bread in existence. Arizmendi’s real strength is in its crusty rustic breads, which offer a crisp exterior that contains perfection if you have the mettle to break through. The bakery also sells raw pizza dough so that you can make your own. This is my favorite place for hearty breads to accompany soup or stew on cold rainy days.
The winner and champion reigning on both sides of the Bay, however, is Acme Bread. I first came to know Acme at the Ferry Building farmer’s market in San Francisco. I had just stood in line for 20 minutes to get Roli Roti (and if you don’t know about that yet, you have a life-changing experience ahead of you) and had sat down to destroy a roast chicken on the spot. My friends came out to help me, and one of them had a bakery bag. Thinking ourselves very smart, we split her rolls and made tiny chicken sandwiches … only to find that the rolls were heavenly, perfect angelic creations that complemented the genius of Roli Roti superbly. We ate all of her rolls and went back for more. I was overjoyed to find that there’s another Acme location just a little ways from campus on San Pablo. Now I swing by once a week and try a new herb slab of golden bread or a ladder of sweet French. Acme is the best bakery in Berkeley, and San Francisco, and maybe the world.
I seem to have read somewhere that man cannot live by bread alone, so we have to talk pastries. I have high standards and lean toward a European sensibility, preferring rich and buttery treats over those that rely on sugar to transport me. Keeping that in mind, these are my top three.
A newcomer to Berkeley, Paris Baguette recently opened right beside the Downtown Berkeley BART station. Its setup is similar to that of Sheng Kee on Telegraph: a self-serve wraparound bakery counter featuring buns, sandwiches and pastries of all kinds. Unlike Sheng Kee, Paris Baguette offers seating and a relaxed place in which to enjoy your treats. The quality of the pastries is also slightly better than that of our proximal favorite. My first time in, I was overjoyed to find the bakery serving the near-legendary cronut: a donut made of flaky layers of dough like a croissant. Everything I’ve had there has been delicious, and it’s so convenient!
In North Oakland, my favorite sweet spot has to be James and the Giant Cupcake. The name attracted my eye right away — it reminded me of a wonderful story from childhood and replaced a delicious peach with a possibly more delicious substitute. I stopped in one day and noticed that it’s a woman-owned business with mostly female employees. I asked whether that was intentional, and they told me they have one male employee — named James. I tried the salted caramel, the carrot cake and the orange creamsicle. The flavors are rich and intense without being cloying, and the bakery’s following is practically a cult. This place keeps me coming back.
Finally, my absolute favorite place to indulge my desire for pastries is La Bedaine. Located in the Berkeley Hills, this is a little bit of a trip. Once I made my way there, I sampled some of the most delicious melt-in-your-mouth pastries I have ever had in my life. The croissants are unlike any other I have ever tasted. The meringues changed my mind about meringues. The tea cake and coffeecake are marred only by the sorry fact that La Bedaine’s tea is pedestrian and its coffee is terrible. No matter, I get my goodies to go and leave with no regrets.