Every few minutes a worker pops through the bakery's gleaming stainless steel doors into the bustling sales area carrying a tray of warm goodies fresh from the oven while majestically announcing its name. "Fresh milk pudding buns!" "Fresh marble taro bread!"
A throng of plastic tong-wielding hopefuls waits to snap up a favorite item. A few minutes later another tray is announced and added to the lineup. So it goes throughout the day and, despite the crowds, the line moves swiftly thanks to an efficient team that bags customers' selections then directs them to the coffee pick-up station.
"It's a phenomenon," said customer Veronica Peinado. The likes of mochi-filled coffee bread and squid-ink garlic cheese buns may be a little over the top for most American palates. But among the bakery's 75 sweet and savory offerings in display cases and lined up on trays buffet-style, the shop's diverse customers have found plenty to fall in love with. Manager Stephanie Peng, who grew up in Orange County, says a few of the original recipes of this Taiwanese chain, known as the Starbucks of Taiwan, were tweaked to suit American tastes.
And some take a little experimenting. To get the full effect of 85C's salted latte, newcomers discover it's important to sip directly from the cup, not through a straw. The salt isn't present throughout the subtly sweet coffee; it's in the milky foam.
Unique as it is, 85C isn't gimmicky. (Its name is a reference to the ideal temperature — in degrees Celsius — at which to serve coffee). For the lattes and other espresso-based drinks, the shop uses premium Antigua Arabica, the Guatemalan beans reserved for high-end coffee vendors.
Credit 85C's success on changing American tastes — and impeccable timing. After years of customers learning to eat sushi, Thai and other Asian cuisines in which a salt-sweet balance is fundamental, the salt-laced desserts so favored among high-end pastry chefs are sweeping into the mainstream.
Despite the allure of 85C's gorgeous iced cakes and pastries, most eat-in customers get the sweets made from yeasted doughs that are lighter (but often larger) than a standard butter or shortening-laced Danish-style pastry or croissant.
At their best when slightly warm are the boroh cream Danish (named in Cantonese for its pineapple shape — there is no pineapple flavor), a grapefruit-size almond-covered ball of sweet bread with a smooth almond-flavored milk and butter filling and the brioche-like milk pudding whose creamy vanilla center is a close cousin to Beard Papa's cream puff filling. Ditto for the exceptionally popular 85C rose cheese, a fragrant, meltingly delicious cranberry-studded mauve and white dome of sweet bread of nearly soccer ball proportions holding a lightly whipped cheese-cream—easily enough for three or four to share.
The savories are equally wonderful. The wheat germ mushroom, a long skinny pizza-like creation, comes topped with a savory blend of fresh mushrooms, herbs and cheese, a pizza bianca of sorts. Good cheddar flavors the cheese twists and the bite-sized cheese bites that look and taste like savory mini cheesecakes.
Hot dogs are baked into buns or sliced as toppings for flat breads in combination with cheese. Although some items seem familiar from other Taiwanese bakeries, 85C's chefs have nailed the flavors — even the swirled lavender taro-filled bread and mochi-centered coffee bread beguile non-Asian palates.
Less baroque breads make wonderful accompaniments for steaming cups of tea. The raisin wheat bran bar or the sugared cream cheese brioche topped with dabs of farmer's cheese resemble subtly sweet European tea breads.
So far, it may be that globally influenced sweets have been the purview of high-end pastry chefs or Asian bakeries, but judging from the crowds at 85C it's clear they're soon set to go mainstream.
2700 Alton Parkway, No. 123 (Diamond Jamboree Shopping Center), Irvine; (949) 553-8585; 85cbakerycafe.com
Breads and coffee sweets 50 cents to $2.75 (some larger quantities as high as $5); Coffee drinks 75 cents to $5.
Boroh cream Danish, milk pudding (in brioche), wheat germ mushroom, marble taro bread, iced sea salt coffee.
Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. No alcohol. Credit cards OK. Lot parking.