Benkyodo – San Francisco, California - Gastro Obscura
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San Francisco, California

Benkyodo

This Japanese treats shop may have been the first business to mass-produce fortune cookies in the United States. 

This unassuming, family-run Japanese confectionery store in San Francisco may be the oldest business in Japantown. Today, it’s run by Ricky and Bobby Okamura, grandchildren of Suyeichi Okamura, who opened the shop in 1906. It may also be the place where fortune cookies—everyone’s favorite Japanese treat mistakenly thought to be Chinese—were first mass-produced in the United States.

The story goes that a Japanese immigrant named Makoto Hagiwara, who opened the Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden in the late 1800s, made it a practice to leave visitors with a sweet taste in their mouths: On their way out, he served them green tea and senbei, a flattened Japanese cookie, folded and bent over itself while still fresh, with a small note inside. When demand for these “fortune” cookies exceeded Hagiwara’s ability to make them by hand, he approached a local confectionery specialist—Suyeichi Okamura—for ideas. In 1911, Okamura developed a machine to mass-produce fortune cookies in his shop and gave them their signature vanilla flavor, hoping it would appeal to the American palate. It worked. The cookies soon spread throughout California, inciting numerous claims of inventor-ship.

Benkyodo became a mainstay of the J-Town community in its original location until 1942, when the vast majority of San Francisco’s Japanese community was forced into internment camps. This mass internment contributed to the false association between Chinese restaurants and fortune cookies, as Chinese businesses replicated and sold the Japanese confectioners’ recipes in their absence.

With the family freed from internment in 1945, Benkyodo reopened in 1951 in a cozy, light-filled coffee shop with classic red countertops and stools, lined on one side with glass cases full of Japanese treats. Shop favorites are the fruit mochi, with real fruit paste tucked into the pillowy rice ball; dorayaki, consisting of red-bean filling sandwiched between honey pancakes; and suama, a celebratory, fruity, steamed rice cake. The overlooked lunch menu features an understated deviled egg sandwich; coffee and tea are served all day as well. Those looking for the original fortune cookies, however, are out of luck: The shop no longer makes them.

Know Before You Go

The store is closed on Sundays and Mondays. It's cash only.

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