85°C, the cult Taiwanese sweet shop has legions of fans and four locations in San Diego. But if it’s new to you, here’s a guide to such must-have specialties as sea salt coffee, breads, pastries, cakes and cheese dogs
They sell chocolate croissants, red velvet cake, tiramisù, lattes and green tea at 85°C Bakery Cafe. Just your average bakery cafe, right?
Wrong. In fact, 1,000 times wrong.
The Taiwan-bred chain — which has 1,000-plus locations worldwide, including four in San Diego — sells scores of baked goods and beverages that most Americans have never heard of before. Among the Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and European-style treats are a red bean-black sesame bread, espresso buns, marble taro loaves, pork sung buns, coconut snow cubes, Hokkaido cheese tarts, yudane chocolate cream cheese rolls and sea salt coffee.
Like that other cult global chain from Taiwan, soup dumpling superpower Din Tai Fung, 85°C is setting a new standard for excellence on a large scale. Fittingly, it’s been called “the Starbucks of China” for its ubiquity and uniformity. Which, if you’ve ever tried anything at 85°C, you know that’s not a bad thing.
Even though it opened its first local store in Balboa Mesa in 2014, 85°C is still relatively obscure in San Diego — and now even more so in the Midway District, where a fifth location closed recently due to sagging sales. (That’s strike two, Point Loma, after the snubbing of El Jardín.)
Roger Skinner, the general manager of the newest location of 85°C, at Westfield UTC, said there are two types of people: those who haven’t heard of the bakery cafe chain and those who adore it.
“If you know it, you love it,” Skinner said.
I know it and I don’t just love it, I’m obsessed. How else could I have eaten my way through 42 items on the UTC store’s menu and come away an even bigger fan than before? My infinite capacity to eat notwithstanding, it was only possible because 85°C’s freshly made items are uniformly light, fluffy and not overly sweet.
To understand this global phenomenon — and why so many of us are utterly infatuated with it — here’s a primer on 85°C and some of its most delicious offerings.
- The four 85°Cs in the county are Balboa Mesa, Mira Mesa, National City and Westfield UTC. (See addresses below.) Menu choices vary; the UTC location is the smallest and has a more limited selection.
- Prices for most individual baked goods range from $1.60 to $3.20.
- Most of the breads, buns, etc., are self serve. Pick up a tray, line it with parchment, grab some tongs to grab your goodies. (Try to use a soft touch as those fluffy rounds of goodness tend to squish.)
- Pastries, cakes and other refrigerated desserts are behind a counter or in a cold case.
- Bring your tray up the register to pay and order drinks.
- In the unlikely event you didn’t see anything you wanted, stick around. Every 10 minutes or so, an employee calls out “fresh bread!” before replenishing an item or swapping in a new one.
- There are about 40 varieties of coffee, tea and other sippables, including banana hot chocolate, rose milk tea, brown sugar latter, frozen marble taro smoothie, boba tea, and more. But the chain is best known for its sea salt drinks.
- Sea salt drinks sound odd, until you taste how balanced the salt makes the drink and how it brings out the flavor in ingredients.
- Sea salt concoctions come with a small dollop of sweetened heavy cream and then the cups are sealed with a thin layer of plastic that allow you to shake your drink and mix in the cream.
- We had the classic sea salt coffee and the sea salt jasmine green tea. They were neither sweet, nor salty. They just had super enhanced coffee and jasmine green tea flavor.
- The menu at 85°C can be confusing. Under the heading of cakes are the subcategories cake cups (which are actually puddings), mousses, panna cottas and others in that creamy ilk, and rolls, which includes everything from nougat candy to chocolate chip cookies, sponge rolls to cream puffs, tarts to muffins.
- Look for items identified with a red “yudane,” including the choco bun, the chocolate cream cheese roll and cranberry cream cheese roll, for the fluffiest and most tender bread you’ve ever tasted. The yudane method of baking uses boiling water or milk to scald the flour; once thickened and cooled, the starter can be added to the other ingredients and kneaded into the dough.
- The Hokkaido cheese tart is a baked, creamy cheesecake-like tartlet, with a flaky almond crust, that’s named after the signature, high-quality cheese from the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
- The name of some breads includes the word milk, as in premium milk, milk pudding and milk butter puff pastry, but many more breads contain milk in the dough than are identified.
- Bagged, grab-and-go rectangular bread loaves called “toast” aren’t really toast. They’re sandwich breads that could be toasted.
- Nowhere does 85°C say if a baked good is stuffed or filled. Many of them are — with custard, almond paste, mango curd, taro cream, chocolate, white chocolate, etc. You can ask an employee or embrace the possibility of surprise.
The flavor profiles
Chocolate reigns at 85°C, while coffee, mango and taro are also common flavors.
- Chocolate: black forest cake, deluxe chocolate mousse cake, royal chocolate strawberry cake, strawberry chocolate mousse cake, glazed chocolate pearl cake cup, royal chocolate cup, chocolate sponge roll, chocolate hazelnut muffin, choco bun, matcha choco bun, chocolate chip bowl, chocolate cream cheese yudane roll, chocolate croissant, white chocolate strawberry bun, the premium milk bun — which gives no hint that there’s white chocolate inside it — and nearly a dozen more. My top pick: the classic choco bun, with its airy texture and not-too-sweet chocolate pieces inside. Honorary mention: goes to that premium milk bun, which could make a white chocolate lover out of any white chocolate skeptic.
- Coffee: classic tiramisù cake, sea salt coffee brûlée cake, coffee crème brûlée cup, 85°C coffee bread, coffee milk butter bread, espresso bun and mocha bread. My top pick: the coffee milk butter bread, for its silky coffee and condensed milk center. Extra points for the chocolate chips on top. Honorary mention: goes to the espresso bun, as light as angel food inside, with a subtle coffee flavor on the outside courtesy of coffee bean-flecked coffee cookie dough baked onto the top. It encases the bun in a gorgeous brown coat and crisps up the bottom.
- Mango: mango crème brûlée cake, mango panna cotta cup, glazed mango delight cake cup, mangotale bun, mango custard bun and mango bread. My top pick: The sunny yellow glazed mango delight is ball of moist sponge cake filled with delicate mango mousse. Dishonorable mention: the mango crème brûlée cake was too sweet and perfumey, like how I imagine a mango-scented candle would taste. It was the only item — out of 42! — that I didn’t like.
- Taro: taro snow cake, mini taro roll shell, taro swirl bun, taro danish, taro puff pastry, marble taro bread, taro twist. My top pick: the marble taro bread, for its singular raw dough taste and texture, even though it’s perfectly cooked. The pretty, light violet swirl and earthy, tropical root vegetable filling make it one of the most unique items at 85°C; it’s also one of the most popular. Honorable mention: goes to the taro puff pastry, which strikes the perfect balance between its flaky pastry and creamy taro custard.
There are a limited number of savory items at 85°C and while a several of them were outstanding, overall they can’t compare to the perfection of the sweets.
- The newest offering is a vegan potato croquette with vegan bacon. It had a pleasing flavor and texture.
- Also vegan is the excellent curry bun, with onions, carrots, corn and crunchy panko on the outside.
- The most popular savory item is the cheese dog, a gourmet pig in a pastry blanket, with black pepper, mayo, ketchup, cheese and parsley. I found the bread a little too sweet for a meat treat.
- I gave the near-perfect French garlic cheese bread sticks, with Asiago, two stars out of three.
- The spicy sausage in pastry, with mayo, Sriracha, mozzarella and cheddar, has just the right amount of heat.
- The danish-like rolled ham and cheese tastes like standard ham and melted cheese: not bad, not great.
- In contrast, the pork sung bun tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before. Its coating of shredded, dried salted pork — which is adhered to the bun with mayo — is delicious food fur.
- The jalapeño cream cheese pastry, which gets a little tang from feta, is an enjoyable elevated popper.
- Imagine flaky puff pastry filled with a tasty spinach dip and that sums up my favorite savory item, the spinach kale danish with cream cheese.
The Top 10
Among my picks for the best things at 85°C are the aforementioned fluffy choco bun, the white chocolate-filled premium milk bun, the luscious Hokkaido cheese tart, the doughy marble taro loaf and the super rich coffee milk butter bread, the only I item to earn a three-star rating out of three. Rounding out the Top 10 were: the brioche-like red bean bread with a smooth filling and vibrant black sesame seeds; the airiest four-piece, pull-apart brioche ever; the decadent royal chocolate cup, with chocolate sponge, chocolate mousse, cherries, and three Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolates on top; the sugar cream loaf, a brioche on steroids, with crumbled sugar streusel baked on top and creamy custard inside; and the milk pudding, which isn’t a pudding but a buttery, custard-filled roll. Westfield UTC 85°C supervisor Derick Le said “almost every Asian bakery has a version of it, and 85°C is known for its version.” Isn’t it time for you to know it, too?
85°C Bakery Cafe
- 5575 Balboa Ave., Clairemont, (858) 278-8585
- 8265 Mira Mesa Blvd., Mira Mesa, (858) 693-7885
- 1302 E. Plaza Blvd., National City, (619) 350-6885
- 4313 La Jolla Village Drive, at Westfield UTC, (858) 352-6098
85°C By the Numbers
85°C: What the bakery cafe considers the optimal temperature to serve espresso
2004: When the first 85°C opened in Taiwan
2006: When the first 85°C outside Taiwan, in Sydney
2008: When the first 85°C store opened in the U.S., in Irvine
2014: When the first 85°C store opened in San Diego, in Balboa Mesa
1,000-plus: Number of 85°C locations worldwide
600-plus: Number of locations in mainland China
60-plus: Number of different breads sold at 85°C
60-plus: Number of different pastries sold at 85°C
40-plus: Number of drink variations sold at 85°C
Source: 85°C Bakery Cafe