The exterior of Dragon City Bakery & Café is by no means the most alluring on Mission Street, with its faded sign, bleak lighting and unremarkable facade. Few newcomers would guess that, every day, 3,000 French rolls — a Mexican staple — travel from Dragon City to every corner of the Bay Area’s Latinx community.
At four o’clock on a recent afternoon, the kitchen had just filled the glass case by the cash register with freshly baked French rolls.
“These taste the same as the ones I ate in Mexico, and they bring back memories of my country,” said Ana Rosa Espinoza, who was there with her two teenage sons. “In Mexico, each family cuts the bread, puts tamal inside, and eats it with coffee.”
Espinoza has been coming here, to Mission Street between 19th and 20th streets, every day for the past six years, because her sons want French rolls with every meal. She bought 10 and happily told Kaman Au, the cashier, a little secret: “Eating this bread with Coca-Cola is the best!”
Victor Doran came alone. But just like Espinoza, they both greeted Au by deftly pointing at the rolls. Doran walked away with 20 French rolls for $10, and a reservation for 160 more to pick up on Saturday, no matter that he had to drive over from Richmond.
“We have customers who live in San Jose who come every week to the Mission to buy these French rolls,” said Au, who busily refilled the case every time supply grew low.
For the 57-year-old owner of Dragon City Bakery, Henry Chen, the popularity of his French rolls is no accident. After arriving in the United States in 1984, the Chinese immigrant spent years learning Americans’ tastes in pastries from Safeway. He later refined his skills at a bakery in the Mission, where he learned from a French pastry chef.
When Chen first laid plans for his own Mission bakery in 1992, he thought “all I needed was to do three things right: the French rolls, pastries and birthday cakes.”
He spent a year perfecting his French rolls: mastering his grasp of the equipment, exploring the fermentation process, and experimenting with different ingredient ratios.
“I can say mine is basically the same as the original in Mexico, except for any difference caused by the weather. It’s a little bit colder and windy in San Francisco,” Chen said.
After 29 years, his customers still seem to agree.
According to Chen, every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, customers line up in front of Dragon City Bakery and buy 5,000 French rolls within two hours of opening.
But Chen refused to take all the credit. “Pete’s Bar-B-Que next door sells turkey to put in the rolls. People also come to my shop because it’s convenient.”
Since the pandemic, sales of the coffee and Chen’s signature birthday cakes, once popular at the quinceañeras of local girls, have dwindled. French rolls, however, are selling better than ever.
“People are eating at home more,” said Chen. “My ‘pork bun’ (his nickname for the French roll) is as essential to some people here as rice is to Chinese.”
Chen’s business hasn’t survived solely on the lure of the French rolls. He also credits the honest character of people in the Mission. Back in the ’90s, he let people in the neighborhood pay on credit. “I remember there were a dozen people in their 70s who would sometimes come in and say, ‘I don’t have any money today. Can I make a monthly payment?’ and I would let them,” said Chen, who then gave a sly smile. “But when it got to be over $300, they needed to start paying.”
As he gradually established himself, he gained prestige among new immigrants from China. “Eighty percent of Bay Area Chinese bakeries learned from me. I hear I have six generations of apprentices,” said Chen, who acts as a consultant for other local bakeries. “When they come to me with a new product, if I say yes, they try it. If I say no, they drop it.”
As for the aging store layout, Chen said, “I sell ‘rice.’ Changing the original decoration would be a loss of tradition.”
What if eventually the younger generation stops coming? “I’m not worried,” said Chen. “They grew up eating my French rolls.”