A classic cake lives on

Photographs of the legendary Coffee Crunch Cake by Frank Wing

Coffee Crunch Cake photographs by Frank Wing

CLASSICS | FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Ask any true San Franciscan with a serious sweet tooth what tops the list of local culinary delights and the answer you’ll likely hear: Coffee Crunch Cake.

For more than three decades, customers have found this delicacy at Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop, tucked away inside Super Mira Market at 1790 Sutter Street in Japantown.

These days some voice concern about the fate of the fabled Coffee Crunch Cake should Sweet Stop owners Moses and Hatsy Yasukochi decide to retire. The Yasukochis have no imminent retirement plans, but even when they do, the future of the Coffee Crunch Cake is assured: Their grandson Kenji Yick, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, vows he will carry on the tradition.

“I’ve been in and out of the bakery since childhood, so it was a good foundation,” Yick says. “I had rudimentary knowledge of what I’d go on to learn.” But the bad news? “You get tired of what you bake,” he says. “Birthday? Coffee Crunch Cake. Thanksgiving? Coffee Crunch Cake. Christmas? Coffee Crunch Cake.” The young baker would get little sympathy from Crunch Cake aficionados.

The Yasukochis grew up in the Bay Area — he in San Francisco and she in Oakland and Concord. Both spent time as children in internment camps during World War II.

“A friend of mine wanted to set us up on a blind date,” Hatsy says. “I said, ‘I don’t go on blind dates. I would have to see him first.’ And she said, ‘He can’t come out.’ I thought, ‘He can’t come out? Is he in jail or something?’ ”

It eventually became clear that Moses couldn’t come out because he was in the U.S. Army. A year or two later, when they wound up on the same bowling team, the two soon became a personal team. They were married in 1964. Hatsy and Moses Yasukochi raised three daughters in San Francisco: Wendy Prigge, a nurse and director of the operating room at Stanford Hospital, and the mother of Kenji and his sister Samantha; Stacey Nolan, a project manager at Hewlett Packard and the mother of Amanda; and Erin Yamamura, a San Francisco firefighter and the mother of Justin and Lindsay.

Before opening the Sweet Stop in 1974, the Yasukochis owned Antoine’s Bakery in San Leandro. Tony, a baker hired to help out, came to Antoine’s from the long-beloved Blum’s pastry shop on Union Square, where Coffee Crunch Cake was the tried and true choice for San Francisco special occasions. Tony shared the recipe with Moses, who soon learned to create it with such perfection that the retired Blums gave him their blessing to use the Coffee Crunch Cake name.

One slice costs $3.95, and full cakes range from an eight-inch round, for $35, to a flat cake that serves up to 100. Three-tiered wedding cakes can be created with two weeks’ notice.

The Sweet Stop counter features much more than cake. Thanks to Moses, who arrives at seven in the morning to fire up the ovens by opening time at 10, there are also cookies, pies, donuts and enough pastries to wreck the most dedicated diet in town. But get there early for the Coffee Crunch Cake — or order in advance — because it tends to sell out.

Sweet Stop co-owner Hatsy Yasukochi and her grandson Kenji Yick — and the legendary Coffee Crunch Cake.

Sweet Stop co-owner Hatsy Yasukochi and her grandson Kenji Yick

The Sweet Stop is inside Yasuaki Miura’s Super Mira Market at the corner of Sutter and Buchanan, where a dazzling assortment of Japanese foods and goods line the shelves. It is helpful to read Japanese, but essential translations appear on most items. Or a smiling Mitoki Inagaki, who is usually found at the checkout counter, will translate for customers in need. Other than being owned by good friends and sharing adjacent space, the market and the Sweet Stop are not related.

One local non-Japanese customer frequently stops by for mysterious seafood items, which her husband enjoys with his nightly martini: Tako Sunomono (Japanese cucumber octopus salad) or Chuka Ika Sansai (squid and vegetables) or Shio Kazunoko (salted herring roe.) A worried-looking clerk recently warned her as she was purchasing the roe: “It’s very salty.” Still, she proceeded, reasoning that a cheese plate featuring sliced octopus and salted herring roe could certainly help enliven any cocktail hour.

Also at Super Mira are assortments of meats, fish, sushi and fresh-made dishes. Customers are often found at quiet tables in the corner after assembling a tasty snack or lunch — a unique way to enjoy a stopover in Japantown. More common than diners, though, are the regular shoppers who come to Super Mira for just about everything on their grocery lists.

Customers often top off their trips with detours to the Sweet Stop. And lucky ones get there in time for a slice of Coffee Crunch Cake.