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Impressions: 85°C Bakery Café

The Starbucks of Taiwan opens first outpost in San Diego

By Troy Johnson

It’s been billed as “The Starbucks of Taiwan.”

No pressure.

San Diego got its first 85°C Bakery Café in November. People who love Asian food brought frankincense and myrrh to its grand opening, speaking in Pentecostal foodie-tongues about its soul-restorative powers.

Named after the ideal temp to brew coffee (185°F), this Balboa Mesa storefront marks 85°C’s 14th location in the U.S.—all opened in the last five years and all in Southern California (they’ll open a NorCal spot soon). There are over 300 locations in Taiwan.

The spot makes sense. Balboa has a thriving Asian community. But food culture is xenophillic at this point. My white friends seem to love Asian food more than my Asian friends. Plenty of white people in line here.

Why do people go so nuts for 85°C?

  1. The sea salt iced coffee.
  2. Self-serve warm baked goods of all sorts. Sold for dirt cheap.

The sea salt iced coffee is served in a plastic cup, sealed for shaking. The ingredients are ice, coffee, and salted heavy cream, which fills the upper third of the cup. It’s a forget-swimsuit-season amount of cream. Shake it together and—surprise—you have an incredibly sweet, slightly salty hybrid between a coffee and a milkshake.

Apparently the original in Taiwan isn’t so sweet. The sugar was cranked up because market research suggested Americans have the palate of a Pez dispenser. Too bad. The salt-cream-coffee is a little bit of a revelation in the same way sea-salted caramel was a few years ago, but it’s like drinking a tiramisu through a straw. Though I can see why people would get addicted to it.

The breads we try are all very good, very buttery, and very cheap. We order six baked goods and a large sea salt iced coffee, and pay $12. Twelve dollars. Cheap. Anyone familiar with the Asian bakery confusingly named Paris Baguette knows the business model—dozens and dozens of different kinds of baked creations, which you self-serve buffet style using a tray and tongs. It’s designed for over-ordering, which almost everyone seems to do. Taro and red bean fillings rule.

85°C’s egg tart—light, slightly caramelized egg custard in a flaky crust—is phenomenal. The milk pudding, a traditional Japanese bread filled with vanilla custard, is good as well. What’s nice about the treats at 85°C, and with most Asian bakeries, is that most are not terribly sweet like doughnuts or cupcakes. The only one we don’t care for is their very popular marble taro roll, a purple-and-white bread filled with taro, almond, white sesame, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, flaxseeds, rye flour and wheat bran. The pasty filling has an off-putting flavor of excessive protein.

They do have savory breads, pizza rolls, hot dogs and calamari bread that’s colored black with squid ink and then stuffed with mozzarella cheese.

So how does 85°C compare to Starbucks? Well, the coffee and espresso are lighter, for starters. Figures. Starbucks’ coffee is extracted through the earth by fracking. It also doesn’t have the rich, fake-mahogany, dark-Pottery Barn warmth of the famed coffee shop. It feels like a cross between a diner and a Pinkberry.

I’d look at 85°C as a place for pretty killer bang-for-your-buck baked goods. A more creative breakfast pastry shop. And a welcome addition to San Diego’s dessert realm.

Impressions: 85°C Bakery Café

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