85°C Bakery Cafe officially opens this Friday, July 7, at 9750 Bellaire. But as you've probably already detected from Instagram, Facebook, Yelp and some early news reports, the cafe has actually quietly opened already, ushering in an onslaught of pastry and coffee fiends in need of a brioche and boba tea fix.
The Houston Press dropped in on Monday to scope out what all the fuss is about. This is the 1,000th location of the coffee shop and bakery that people — well, maybe just PR people — refer to as "the Starbucks of Taiwan." But 85°C Bakery Cafe is so much more than that. It's a fully functioning bakery that turns out fresh baked goods basically every hour. This is the first location in Houston, though more are likely to come.
Parking was painless, but getting in was a task. The door facing Bellaire was actually locked though it reads door must remain unlocked during business hours. A woman with a box of baked goods approached, laughing at us the way Ursula the Sea Witch does at some poor unfortunate souls. "The door is around the corner. You'll see the line."
This was actually just the first line. About a dozen deep outside the door.
"I'm from California," a chatty guy ahead of me said, "San Diego. So I already know. The egg custards. They're the best. They never dry out like other bakeries'."
Five minutes passed and the bakery's door guy — not a bouncer, but a teenage kid with glasses and the look of somebody who's been forced to tell customers to form a line in the scorching heat all day — allowed us entry.
Nobody really explains what the drill is here. In fact, most customers already seem to know what to do. The place operates sort of like a Mexican bakery in that respect. Guests grab a tray and tongs and get endless access to cheap pastries in self-serve cases.
"I don't think they have everything out yet," the guy from the line told me, a tad disappointed. They'd just run out of his beloved egg custards. "I think because they're just opening."
Or because they'd been at capacity all day? Who knows, but it was 4 p.m. and there was no sign of business letting up. Even with the cases half full, there were still plenty of baked wonders to choose from: cinnamon rolls and calamari sticks and something called Honey Teriyaki Chicken, and another something that looked like the lovechild of a breadstick and a churro.
There were hearty pointy loaves of multi-grain bread and brioche that looked meant for tearing apart like monkey bread. There were custardy rolled cakes and something called a Half Moon and glorious chocolate chip cookies and packs of nougat and giant, chocolatey soft taco-like desserts. There were plastic cones full of mango panna cotta and soufflé-style coffee cake puffed up like a throw pillow.
Large, puffy pastries, unlabeled, could've been chocolate eclairs pumped full of macaroni and cheese for all I knew, so I steered clear. In fact there were many things without labels — allergies or aversions be damned — but most people seemed not to care, milling about zombie-style as they're wont to do when exposed to self-serve desserts and a longish wait time for the marbled taro bread to come fresh from the oven.
Another line, the checkout line, which in part is also the coffee-drink order line if you're buying pastries as well, was running at least 30 deep by 4:30 p.m.
FRESH BREAD, a man screamed, emerging from the back area with a tray of fresh baked goods. Fresh bread, the employees on the floor screamed back, which I imagine was a big hit during staff training and now in working hours...when else is one allowed to shout in a customer's face?
Egg custards were restocked, but because I'd gotten in the second line and camped out for 20 minutes with another 30 people behind me, I would not be going back to get some.
Instead I worked my way up to a counter where employees were pre-wrapping the pastries in individual cellophane bags, which seemed rather a waste. At another counter, I ordered my sea salt iced coffee, a dreamy caffeinated beverage with a thick layer of salted whipped cream on top that was also sealed in plastic. Someday the entire earth will be.
Because I'd missed lunch, I opted for a few savory items, a strange tuna danish, seemingly drizzled in honey and chock-full of sweet onion, with a touch of melted cheese, atop an extraordinary croissant-like pastry. It was weird and wonderful and I finished it before moving on to one of the best things I've tasted all year: A garlicky "calamari stick." It's actually just a slick and soft black roll colored with squid ink and filled with Swiss cheese, a schmear of garlic butter across the top. It looks like a lump of coal. It tastes divine and it's only $1.
As far as I could tell, there were no Harry Connick Jr. CDs for sale by the registers or employees misspelling my name as Grendel on a paper cup, so Starbucks of Taiwan this is not, unless you count the calorie information on the menu screens and the absolute legion of fans. It was functioning pretty efficiently given the number of customers and the business being only, you know, one day old.
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Plus, I'm fairly certain if I'd left Starbucks with the amount of pastries and coffee I'd had at 85°C — I took home two Fig Newtonish pineapple cakes and a coconut custard roll and also downed a sweet cheese danish — my check would've been along the lines of $140 as opposed to just a simple $14.
85°C Bakery Cafe is a bargain, but I'd give it a couple of weeks for the mania to die down before visiting. Unless you're into hordes of humans and traditional dragon dances, in which case you'll want to show up on Friday, July 7, at 8:30 a.m., when the grand opening party will start bright and early. Thankfully, that sea salt coffee will do the trick.
85°C Bakery Cafe, 9750 Bellaire
Current Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.