Monthly Archives: January 2015

85c Bakery Cafe

Multiple Locations in Southern & Northern California

Over the last few years it has become trendy for chains originating in Asia to open locations in the United States, mainly in California. These expansions have predominantly come from restaurants, most notably Din Tai Fung from Taiwan, Hai Di Lao from China, Gyu-Kaku from Japan, and Crystal Jade from Singapore. For the most part these ventures have been very successful, especially Din Tai Fung where their locations can experience 1+ hour long wait times to this day (Crystal Jade being a notable exception with near universal derision from food critics).

Restaurants aren’t the only ones riding this wave of American expansion, though. Popular bakeries have expanded their operations across the Pacific too. While Asian bakeries in the United States are not new (Hong Kong based Kee Wah Bakery has operated in the US since 1985), there has been a proliferation of bakeries from Asia more recently including South Korea based Paris Baguette and soon to open Duke Bakery in both Rowland Heights and Arcadia. None of them, however, have come near the hype and popularity of Taiwan based 85c Bakery Cafe.

85c opened their first location in Irvine near the end of 2008 when I was a senior in college at nearby UC Irvine. From day one the lines were long and each successive branch they have opened in the US since has had lines out the door and down the block. For those who are new to 85c it’s hard to understand why there are such long lines for what appears to be just a random bakery.

The appeal, however, is both in the freshness of the baked goods as well as the relatively universal appeal of the buns and other items as well. Unlike many bakeries in the US, especially supermarket bakeries, who bake things in the morning and just let products sit out on the shelves for the rest of the day, 85c constantly bakes their bread fresh throughout the day (though now most locations are supplied by a central kitchen where the products are put to a final, finishing bake on site). You can even see employees bring out newly baked items every few minutes shouting “fresh bread” as they load the constantly depleting shelves with new items.

Pastries at 85c Bakery Cafe

Pastries at 85c Bakery Cafe

Of course, even if you baked everything fresh but the food was just mediocre or bland, you likely wouldn’t see the huge lines that appear at almost every time of the day outside any branch of 85c. The second key to their continued fortune are their Taiwanese style pastries. Given the colonial history of Taiwan, these pastries are a blend of both Chinese and Japanese influence. In turn, Japanese pastries are heavily influenced from Portugal. Thus, like the baked buns of Hong Kong, Taiwanese pastries have a blend of European, East Asian, and local influences which you can see in a number of items at 85c like the Calamari Stick (a bun filled with cheese and dipped in squid ink). Arguably it’s this sense of familiarity yet also foreignness that makes pastries also very popular with both non-Chinese and Chinese people alike in the US.

However, I wouldn’t be blogging about a place if I didn’t have reflections or recommendations on my own so here are my thoughts on a select number of their pastries:

  • Premium Milk Bun – This is probably my favorite bun to get at 85c. It’s a fairly simple combination of rich, light white chocolate cream filled inside a nice baked bun. The pièce de résistance, though is the sweet glaze and powdered sugar on top which gives the bun a rich and sweet taste that I love.
  • Coffee Bread – This gigantic coffee flavored bun is filled with mochi and red bean paste giving a nice sweet yet hearty feel. I personally feel that this bun is a bit too big, but there are many who really love this item.
  • Mochi Egg Tart – While this is a perfectly fine egg tart, to be honest I was just okay with it. The problem, I feel, is that unlike the breads, normally the egg tarts are tepid in temperature when you pick one. The mochi gives the egg tart a somewhat creamier taste and the crust is decently flaky, but I find the Portuguese style egg tarts at Kee Wah or even the Bacchanal Buffet in Las Vegas better.
  • Matcha Red Bean Roll – These are pretty good with the roll’s consistency being perfectly balanced, not too light but not too dense. The cream filling in the roll and the matcha flavoring gives it a nice lightly sweet taste
  • Chocolate Chip Bowl – This light and fluffy bread is dotted with bits of chocolate chip. It’s nice but I feel it’s fairly plain compared to their other offerings

These are just 5 of there dozens of offerings and I didn’t even include their multitude of cakes, tart, and beloved panna cotta that’s also available to purchase when you pay for your pastry items.

Taiwan: Sea Salt Coffee by sstrieu:

Taiwan: Sea Salt Coffee by sstrieu:

At this point I should also mention one of their most popular items that you can even skip the bread line to order, since all 85c Bakeries have drink only lines. The sea salt coffee they make is beloved because it’s also delicious. It’s a mix of coffee, cream, and topped with sea salt. When they make the coffee it will be in layers so it is important to shake the drink and mix up all the ingredients before you poke the straw and drink. Otherwise you’ll make the mistake of drinking really dense, super sweet cream at the end. The irony of this popular drink is that the name 85c comes from the founder’s idea that 85c is the ideal temperature for hot coffee; the sea salt coffee only comes cold.

All in all, if you haven’t been to an 85c Bakery Cafe, I would say to go to one as soon as you can. It’s worth the wait and I always make 85c a stop on any trip I have in Southern California.

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Bay Area’s Best Dim Sum?

As many of you know, I did a research project to find the best dim sum in the United States. Based on the methodology I used, the top four places in the San Francisco are:

  1. Yank Sing
  2. Koi Palace
  3. Hong Kong Lounge II
  4. Mama Ji’s

Since I was in the Bay Area for 2 weeks over the holidays, I decided to eat my way through the top 4  and give my subjective review of those places and how I think they match up with their place in the rankings.

Yank Sing

The first place I visited over my time in San Francisco was Yank Sing, which is also ranked the highest. It’s also very costly with dim sum dishes priced at least $5.60 which was one of several reasons why I had never been to the restaurant until now. Despite the prices though, Yank Sing is a popular and bustling place, not only because of its food but of its proximity to San Francisco’s Financial District and tech firms in SoMa that can support the prices and become an ever constant speakerphone for their quality.

As a consequence of its high prices, however, I only ordered a few dishes which included:

Dim Sum at Yank Sing

Dim Sum at Yank Sing

  • Kurobata Pork Shanghai Dumplings – I can see why many people rave about these xiaolongbao. They are probably the best xiaolongbao I have ever tasted at a Cantonese dim sum place given the flavorful, melt in your mouth pork and the delicious soup that accompanied the dumplings. The pork filling was also nicely balanced out with the Chinese vinegar and slices of ginger that came with them. However, the skins could use some work as a couple did break. All in all, they are good but nothing to the level of a Shanghainese restaurant or any location of Din Tai Fung.
  • Shrimp Dumpling – In theory, the har gow at Yank Sing fits everything on what a shrimp dumpling is supposed to be. The shrimp filling has a nice snap and is added by a hint of aromatics. The dumpling skin doesn’t rip, has a nice chew, and break apart perfectly when I chew. Yet somehow I didn’t really care for them as I thought the skin was too gummy.
  • Snowpea Shoots Dumpling – I love snowpea shoots (豆苗) and they did not disappoint in these dumplings. The skin, in contrast to the har gow skin, were nice too. If it weren’t for the price I’d definitely eat more.
Pan Fried Turnip Cake at Yank Sing

Pan Fried Turnip Cake at Yank Sing

  • Pan-Fried Turnip Cake – Despite not looking that great, they actually turned out really well and perfectly fried with a nice crispy outside yet a soft chewy inside. They’re probably the best I’ve eaten.

All in all, Yank Sing was pretty good and, as you’d expect, the service was great too. Was that the best dim sum in the Bay Area though? I still had some reservations and came out of the place thinking Koi Palace might be a little better (and definitely a better value).

Mama Ji’s

The next place I went to was Mama Ji’s out in the Castro. Since Mama Ji’s is in a neighborhood with many wealthy White people instead of a predominantly Chinese neighborhood, I was a little skeptical. Regardless, it just happened to be relatively close to my brother’s SoMa apartment so a group of us decided to go and try it out.

Once we arrived, my skepticism and concerns were unfounded. The restaurant is owned by a nice couple that really try to do their best in making dim sum and to bring the delight of the cuisine to people who likely wouldn’t eat in Chinatown, much less journey to RIchmond or the Sunset.

As to the food, we ordered:

Pork and Shrimp Sui Mai at Mama Ji's

Pork and Shrimp Sui Mai at Mama Ji’s

  • Pork Shrimp Siu Mai – Pretty good and packed full of juicy, tender pork. Perhaps needed a bit more shrimp.
  • Sweet Rice with Shrimp Sausage and Egg Wrapped in Lotus Leaf – Normally made with chicken, it was interesting to see this twist with shrimp sausage and egg. It was good but I prefer the more traditional version
  • Pan Fried Turnip Cake with Dried Shrimp – The dried shrimp provided a nice salty flavor to enhance the dish but otherwise it was rather boring. Unlike the Yank Sing version, these cakes were not fried enough and were a little too oily.
  • Blanched Chinese Broccoli – As my brother insisted since none of our family dim sum experiences were complete without gai lan, I obliged and ordered it. The gai lan was pretty fresh and a nice palate cleanser to balance all the oil in the other dishes but was otherwise pretty bland.
Pork Spareribs at Mama Ji's

Pork Spareribs at Mama Ji’s

  • Steam Spareribs with Black Bean Sauce – Nice tender pork spareribs that might have just had a little too much jalapeno. I don’t mind spicy but the spice on some spareribs were a bit overpowering
  • Har Gow – The shrimp was cooked well but the skins were a bit too thick and stretchy.
Golden Lava Buns at Mama Ji's

Golden Lava Buns at Mama Ji’s

  • Steamed Golden Lava Buns – These were perfect with a nice fluffy bun on the outside and a very nice sweet and salty egg custard filling that wasn’t too runny. My brother’s fiance loved them too!

All in all these items were pretty good those definitely not to the quality of Yank Sing. Compared to other Bay Area dim sum restaurants I’ve also been to I would say Mama Ji’s is better than many of them but I am not quite sure they would land at number 4 on my personal best Bay Area dim sum list.

Hong Kong Lounge II

The next day I took some of my holiday break time to traverse to Laurel Heights and eat at the number 3 ranked dim sum place in the Bay Area, Hong Kong Lounge II. It was unfortunate that none of my friends or family could join me as they still had to work that day, but their absence does not deter me from trying out delicious food!

After waiting for about 30 minutes I got a table and started ordering. Unfortunately the restaurant has a $25 credit card minimum. However that became a blessing in disguise as I was forced to order more dishes and try a wider selection of what they make. These dishes included:

Fried Pork Puff at Hong Kong Lounge II

Fried Pork Puff at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • Fried Pork Puff (安蝦咸水角) – Hands down these were the best I’ve ever had. The puff pastry was light and flaky as it should with the filling being perfectly seasoned and not overpowering the pastry. I was really tempted to order another one!
  • P/F Turnip Cake (香煎蘿蔔糕) – These were good, but a little blander than the Mama Ji’s version. However, they were fried better but still didn’t quite get the crunch on the outside/soft in the inside texture I desire like Yank Sing
  • Shrimp Dumpling (晶瑩鮮蝦餃) – These har gow allowed the slightly crunchy shrimp filling to sing. The flip side is this meant that the skin wasn’t quite up to par as they ripped fairly easily, even if I liked the taste of the skin compared to Yank Sing.
Chinese Donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle at Hong Kong Lounge II

Chinese Donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • Chinese donut and Dried Shrimp Noodle (蔥花蝦米炸兩) – I almost got the fish with chives noodle roll (which did look tasty on the table next to me) but opted for this instead. This was definitely a great choice as the noodle rolls were made and rolled perfectly with a nicely crunchy you tiao and tasty shrimp filling in the middle. These were even better than the noodle rolls I’ve had at Cooking Papa.
Deep Fried Egg Puff Ball at Hong Kong Lounge II

Deep Fried Egg Puff Ball at Hong Kong Lounge II

  • D/F Egg Puff Ball (白糖沙翁) – As one might suspect, these were little pillows of heaven. The filling was a little more eggy than other versions I’ve had but still pretty good as dessert. They aren’t as good as Cooking Papa’s but definitely better and fresher than those served at other places like Zen Peninsula. Unfortunately with all the dishes I was so full that I couldn’t eat more than one.

Personal Conclusions

Unfortunately my schedule didn’t allow me to drive to Daly City and revisit Koi Palace. However, I had eaten there earlier in the year so I still think I have a fairly good memory and basis for comparison.

After having eaten at all 4 of the top 4 ranked dim sum places in the Bay Area I come to a little bit of a different conclusion personally. I would rate Koi Palace number 1 with Hong Kong Lounge II barely behind at number 2. Both have extremely well executed dishes and their less successful dishes arguably still shines above their closest competitors. Yank Sing is not far behind at number 3, though I doubt I’ll be visiting them again very soon as I definitely don’t have the bank account for that. Mama Ji’s is definitely number 4 in a comparison of these dim sum parlors, but I might even put them a little lower compared to others.

That said, all 4 are still on the higher end of dim sum quality in my book and I am glad I have such a variety of tasty options when I visit my friend and family in the Bay.

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Tim Ky Noodle, San Diego

Tim Ky Noodle
9330 Mira Mesa Blvd, Ste A
San Diego, CA 92126

Since it’s the beginning of a new year, it’s fashionable to reflect on the past and talk about the present and future. While many blogs might talk about new years resolutions or reflect on the best of X in 2014 they have done, I’ll write about a restaurant I blogged about last year that has turned over a new leaf as this next year begins instead.

In June I blogged about Tan Ky Mi Gia and professed that I loved Vietnamese/Teochew style wonton noodle soup over the classic Cantonese wonton noodle soup. Since my post, however, the restaurant shut down and changed ownership. During the autumnal season of 2014 the new owners revamped the space giving the dining space a fresh coat of paint, wood panel siding around the benches, and sleek modern engineered wood tables. They also updated and simplified the menu to fit on one legal paper sized laminated sheet with slight changes to the recipe.

While I was sad that I could not eat at Tan Ky Mi Gia during my Southern California visit in November, I was delighted that they were opening in December, just in time for my holiday break visit. I quickly decided to head over there after my New Years celebrations to try it out and see how it compared to its previous incarnation under the old owners. I ordered the following:

Wonton and Dumpling Egg Noodle Soup

Wonton and Dumpling Egg Noodle Soup

  • Wonton and Dumpling Noodle Soup (Mi Sủi Cảo Hoành Thánh) – This was delicious and filled with a light and flavorful seafood broth and less salt/MSG than the Tan Ky Mi Gia version. The broth perfectly complemented the wontons and dumplings which were of decent size and packed with nicely seasoned filling. Perhaps I would have liked a little more shrimp in the wontons (there was more pork that I could taste) but overall pretty good. The barbeque pork was good and not dry like the Tan Ky Mi Gia version and the noodles were cooked perfectly with a nice bounce in the chew.
Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

  • Egg Rolls (Chả giò) – The egg rolls surprised me in that there was less minced pork and more shredded daikon and carrots. This was definitely not a bad thing because these egg rolls tasted perfectly balanced compared to some Vietnamese egg rolls that are too saturated with meat (and leave no room for the main course!). The fish sauce tasted great and I do love how the restaurant gave enough lettuce for all 4 egg rolls. Perhaps the only thing I would have liked to add were some bean sprouts or vermicelli with fried garlic that would have made the lettuce wrapped egg roll even more flavorful.

All in all, I love the new design and new recipes. They were lighter and more refreshing, but portions were big enough to be filling. Perhaps the one thing I might have wanted better were access to all sauces and servingware (like sauce dishes) at all tables. A little bit more attentive service would help too. I want to emphasize that the service wasn’t bad, especially for a restaurant that just opened. However, with a little more experience the service will become just as good as the food.

What’s even better is that during the month of January they are doing a 10% grand opening promotion. 10% off for a bowl of wonton noodle soup that’s originally priced at $6.49 means that San Diegans around the restaurant are in for a bargain meal. Delicious food at a very reasonable price, what more could one ask for?

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