"This is the most beautfiful box of chocolates I've ever seen". That was my immediate--and totally involuntary--reaction the first time I opened a box of truffles from Kokak Chocolates.
Kokak Chocolates, a new truffle store in the Castro which launched in June 2020 at the height of pandemic lockdowns, and celebrates its one-year anniversary today, is unlike any other shop of its kind. Kokak is the brainchild of Carol Gancia, an Irish-Filipino immigrant, member of the LGBTQI+ community, and one of America’s top emerging female chocolatiers, according to the likes of Forbes and the Michelin Guide.
Kokak’s truffles are inspired by a complex mix of Gancia’s own heritage, her seventeen years spent in California, and her connection to the Castro community, which Gancia told me in a letter has “embraced” her chocolate shop and helped shepherd it through the challenges of opening during a pandemic.
Gancia was raised in Manila in the Philippines by “a family of serious chocolate lovers”, which planted the seed for her love of chocolate. She later immigrated to San Francisco in 2005 to launch a video production business. After working on KQED’s Check Please! Bay Area, she felt a deepening connection both to food and to her own cultural background. This interest ultimately led her to launch Kokak in a small corner storefront on 18th Street and Sanchez, just a few blocks from legendary San Francisco eateries like Dandelion Chocolates and Tartine.
Gancia admits that the timing wasn’t great. Launching in June, she wrote to me, was “not…ideal”, but she feels lucky to “see more chocolate lovers know about us”, and for that fact that her store has begun to attract interest on a national scale. Last Fall, Kokak expanded its production and shipping capabilities in order to send truffles anywhere in the continental United States, as well as continuing to serve walk-in visitors in the Castro. Gancia shipped me several items to try out, including a “Sweet Sixteen” box of mixed truffles, a single-origin chocolate bar, and a Castro Pride box celebrating Pride Month and the city’s LGBTQ community.
Kokak’s truffles are unlike anything I’ve tried before. Each one is like a tiny work of art. Exploding with vibrant colors, some look like modernist Mondrian paintings, whereas others are emblazoned with stylized images of tropical fruits, clouds, and seashells. Even Gancia’s chocolate bar is beautiful, designed to look like an artist’s palette with colorful bursts of “paint” and a chocolate frog. (Kokak means “ribbit” in Filipino, and frogs feature prominently in the store’s playful logo and design.)
Gancia’s chocolates are also delicious. The truffles’ flavors are unique and exotic, evoking the Philippines’ complex foodways, which blend Asian influences with bright, tropical flavors. Gancia’s Kalamansi truffle, for example, uses the flavor of a specific breed of lime that grows throughout the Philippines, and evokes her memories of drinking the fruit’s juice during hot days in Manila as a kid. Her Mango Lemongrass truffle celebrates the national fruit of the Philippines and her memories of mango season back home.
Kokak’s truffles are also inspired by Gancia’s strong connection to the Castro’s LGBTQI+ community. Gancia is a member of the Golden Gate Business Association, America’s first LGBT Chamber of Commerce founded by LGBT entrepreneurs. Kokak launched during Pride Month in 2020, and Gancia continues to celebrate the community with a special box of hazelnut truffles emblazoned with the rainbow of the LGBTQ Pride Flag, as well as special-edition Love is Love truffles.
Although he likely doesn’t yet understand the significance of the flag, my four-year-old loves rainbows, and I was barely able to photograph Gancia’s Castro Pride box before a tiny hand snatched the signature rainbow truffle away.
In creating truly special chocolates, it helps that Gancia begins with unique, carefully sourced ingredients. In a letter, Gancia told me that Kokak sources “a rare heirloom cacao variety grown in various provinces of Ecuador, known as ‘Nacional’. The unique varietal “traces its genetic lineage to the earliest-known cacao trees domesticated by humanity 5,300 years ago”, Gancia wrote. While the varietal was considered extinct in the early 21st century, DNA tests ultimately confirmed that old-growth trees found in Ecuador were indeed producing Nacional cacao. Gancia works with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund to source chocolate from the trees, a complex process that she describes as “beyond worth the journey.”
Kokak’s heirloom beans really shine in her single-origin chocolate bars, which have a deep, piquant, complex flavor. Gancia describes her Artist Palette bar as one of Kokak’s signature items. In the bar, Gancia includes Nacional chocolate at a concentration of 70%, powerful enough to make its flavor front and center, but accessible enough that even artisan chocolate newbies can enjoy it. This is important to Gancia — although she takes remarkable care in sourcing premium ingredients, Gancia wrote to me that she wants her chocolates to remain “approachable” as well as “luscious, umami, and fun.”
If you’re in the Castro to celebrate Pride Month, make sure to stop by Kokak Chocolates and pick up some truffles, an heirloom bar, or Gancia’s Cacao Porridge, a popular snack from the Philippines made with sweet rice topped with bubu arare (Japanese rice crackers) and creamy grated coconut. It’s a fun and delicious way to support a local business, try new flavors you’ve likely never sampled before, or pick up a special gift for the chocolate lover in your life.
Kokak Chocolates is located at 18th Street and Sanchez in the Castro. You can stop in for a treat daily between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. (face coverings are required), or order select products online via Kokak’s website for nationwide shipping or local delivery via the Candlestick Courier Collective of bicycle couriers. Follow Kokak on Instagram for some beautiful truffle pictures even if you can’t stop in.