Edible Tradition

Exploring (and sampling) the Asian bakeries of Torrance

 

When you walk through the door at 85°C Bakery Café in Torrance, you can surely expect that familiar whiff of delicious, fresh treats … but dance music? “Many Western bakeries are quiet … reserved … peaceful,” says Raul Garcia, LA district manager for the bakery. “Ours is more like a party with sweets.”  

The energy level at this popular business is quite palpable. Cheerful employees in white shirts and black aprons slide full trays of bread into self-serve casings with ease. Behind the counter, workers busily bag treats, box cakes and whip up a variety of tea and coffee drinks. If you peer through the back window, you can often see the bakers at work—icing cakes, rolling dough and readying trays of fresh, hot bread for the day.

Independent shops like JJ Bakery and Tous Les Jours along with Mitsuwa’s bakeries Mikawaya and J.sweets have long supplied Torrance and neighboring South Bay communities with Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese and Korean-style breads. In the last three years, new venues like Lee’s Sandwiches and 85°C Bakery Café continue to expand the Asian bakery scene.

Asian bakeries differ from Western bakeries—not only in the products served but also the languages spoken and the unique atmosphere created for customers. Often fusing Western and Eastern cuisines, they combine European pastry techniques with Asian ingredients, creating products that look familiar but taste different from what you’d find in a Western bakery. For example, red bean paste, which one might assume is a savory side dish like many Western bean-based foods, is commonly used as a sweet filling for many desserts and pastries.

Each time workers bring out new treats at 85°C Bakery Café, the call of “Fresh bread!” echoes throughout the store. As Raul explains, “The words create excitement about having a hot product go straight out of the oven into the casing.”

Not every bakery bakes throughout the day, but no matter the time you go to 85°C, it’s always cooking. They make everything in small batches to ensure fresh products for each customer. For popular items, like their best-selling brioche bread—soft, fluffy and sweet with a light, crispy crust—that freshness really counts. While he always considers the bread delicious, Raul hints the quality of the products—tasting them hot from the oven—can also be transformative.  

As for many customers in the area, 85°C Bakery Café was a completely new experience for Raul. In the Latino community, he grew up visiting panaderías—traditional, Mexican-style bakeries. Some of the 85°C breads, particularly those with powdered sugar, bring back fond memories. But most of the Taiwanese culture and flavor profile were completely new to him.

85°C Bakery Café started in Taiwan in 2004 when Mr. Wu Cheng-Hsueh—an expert in the hotel industry—decided to create affordable fine pastries. He put together a group of chefs specializing in breads, pastries, cakes and drinks, who then created a menu for what later became 85°C Bakery Café. The name, 85°C, derived from a discovery that coffee’s flavor holds best at 85°C, or 185°F.

 

 

 

 

 

While they later realized they couldn’t serve it to customers at that temperature (for comparison, five-second contact with 140°F water causes third-degree burns), the catchy name and delicious treats stuck. By the time Raul interviewed for the job, 85°C operated more than 324 stores across Taiwan, China, Australia and the United States. They outsold Starbucks in Taiwan, and their popularity grew in huge leaps and bounds. Today they own more than 800 stores across the globe.

When the 85°C recruiter took Raul to visit the Irvine location—85°C Bakery Café’s first U.S. store—he quickly understood its popularity. “The store was completely packed, and everyone was so excited about the bread,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be something to this.’”

They introduced him to the company’s signature item: the Marble Taro bread—a sweet, soft bread with taro filling. Having never encountered taro—a purple, potato-like root common in East Asia—he waited to try it until he could look it up on his phone, back in his car. Now having tried breads with squid ink, mochi, red bean, matcha and other unique ingredients, his palate’s gone pro in the Taiwanese bakery scene.

After that first Irvine trip, Raul decided 85°C was an experience he wanted to be part of. He now oversees the six—soon seven—Southern California locations. He makes sure that recruiting, quality standards, customer service, training and development stay on track at each location. He also works at getting to know each location’s associates and building the stores’ communities, understanding that the energy behind an 85°C Bakery starts at the beginning.

Their grand openings alone are spectacular events. Raul recalls seeing lines of people wrapped around buildings, waiting for more than two hours just to get in the store. “Lots of people learn about us from seeing our events on YouTube,” he says, “which builds our clientele. People want to be part of those experiences.”

Like other nearby Asian bakeries, the flavors of 85°C are subtle, natural and refreshing. According to Raul, many customers don’t like overly sweet, rich or oily foods. “We don’t do fondant. We don’t do buttercream,” he explains, comparing 85°C to Western bakeries. “Instead we do fresh fruit,” seen on their danishes, cakes and puddings.

They also shy away from unnatural colors. Their frosting often matches key cake ingredients—for example, orange for Mango Crème Brûlée, green for Matcha with Red Bean and brown for Triple Chocolate Mousse. Plain white allows others to naturally shine, like the Deluxe Taro Brûlée, Strawberry Cream and Strawberry Tiramisu—an underrated star.

Their savory breads, from the startlingly black Calamari Stick—flavored with garlic, cheese and squid ink—to the salty et subtle Garlic Cheese and Tuna Danish, make great lunches, snacks or even dinner sides. And where Western bakeries might segregate the sweet from the savory, 85°C mixes the two in the style of many Asian cuisines, like the Cheese Dog—an everyday hot dog dressed up in sweet bread, topped with barbeque sauce, mozzarella and cheddar cheese.

Similarly, while most Americans only put salt in their coffee as an April Fool trope, 85°C adds it on purpose and with good reason; their best-selling Sea Salt Coffee—served hot or cold with sea salt whipped cream—became so popular it was featured in Time magazine. Comparable to the taste of a sea salt caramel, the salt draws out the coffee’s natural sweetness.

 

 

 

 

Other popular drinks include the Lemon C Iced Tea, a crisp citrus tea with a whole lemon inside the cup, and the classic Milk Tea, a sharp, black tea mixed with sweetened milk. If you prefer, you can add boba (marble-sized, chewy tapioca pearls) or jelly (small coffee, lychee or mango-flavored agar cubes) to complement your drink’s flavor and texture, transforming your afternoon drink into an afternoon snack.

Then there are the famous sweet breads. When 85°C first came to California they served the same breads as Taiwan: traditional ones like the Boroh, with its buttery pineapple-pattern crust, and the Berry Tales, filled with cream cheese and blueberry. As they expanded and talked with customers, however, they developed new and exciting products.

As Raul explains, “Before we never would have done cookies or macarons, which aren’t Taiwanese. But as we add new items, we infuse a Taiwanese spin.” For instance, as an American might enjoy a ham and cheese croissant, 85°C makes ham and cheese bread; the ingredients are similar, but the styles are very different.

The change in bread offerings has grown with the change in 85°C’s customer base. When the Irvine flagship store opened, its clientele was 90% Asian due to its established Taiwanese brand, its location in an Asian shopping center and the benefit of a “word-of-mouth” community. Because 85°C creates special treats for celebrations like Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival, it is a welcome space for Asians and Asian-Americans to enjoy their culture.

As 85°C opened in new locations, its customer base grew more and more diverse. Now, particularly in the Torrance location, it’s not unusual to see a wide range of clientele, including Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, Filipinos, Caucasians and other ethnic groups coming to enjoy tasty breads.

That diversity is part of the benefit of starting their U.S. network in California—a rewarding if difficult task. “As I said in a Food Network special some years ago,” Raul says, “If you can make it in America, you can make it anywhere—and if you can make it in California, you can make it in America.”

He adds, “It’s hard for businesses to build in California. We’re constantly seeing companies come up, become a big trend, and then go down. So having that longevity in California makes us feel that we’re in good hands to start taking on other states.”

If that longevity means the South Bay continues to enjoy great breads, spectacular cakes and refreshing summertime drinks, it
sounds like Torrance is also in good hands—however sticky, addictive and delicious.

 

 

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