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.
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.
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.