If you’ve bought a cup of coffee in the Bay Area in the past two years, you’ve probably stumbled upon the mochi muffin.
The mochi muffin — and its brethren of East Asian and Southeast Asian flavored custard cakes from Berkeley’s Third Culture Bakery — has been slowly working its way into local cafe culture since 2017.
The brainchild of Sam Butarbutar, the mochi muffin marries the flavor of kue lapis (a Southeast Asian steamed layered cake that Butarbutar’s mom used to make) with mochiko (flour milled from sticky rice), coconut milk and pandan. The end result — caramelized on the outside, dense innards, all sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds — is a beautiful medley of textures combining chewy Hawaiian butter mochi and the brittle edges of an American brownie.
Butarbutar is an Indonesian immigrant who spent his childhood moving between there and the U.S. The mochi muffin became the product that he and his business and life partner, Wenter Shyu, a Taiwanese immigrant, used to spark their bakery business.
But the truth? The bakery’s unsung heroes might be the butter mochi doughnuts, a superior version of the American classic. With a crisp exterior, yet chewy like a fresh marshmallow on the inside, these baked doughnuts aren’t heavy like fried doughnuts. They are made entirely from Koda Farms organic Blue Star Mochiko flour (the only mochi rice grown in California), which makes them naturally gluten-free.
“The doughnuts are lighter and fluffier than the muffins, and the mochiko gives it a muted flavor, which I wanted. It lets the glazes shine through,” Butarbutar says.
And those glazes are gorgeous, vivid pops of color and flavor that greet you the moment you enter the bakery on Berkeley’s Eighth Street, almost like a jumbo-size box of crayons. There’s a brilliant camo-green version made with matcha sourced from Uji, Japan, that tastes like a fresh whisked cup of tea, slightly vegetal and bitter. There’s the marigold yellow of mango-passion fruit glaze, at once tropical and acidic. And the Mardi Gras purple of ube coconut, sweet, earthy and slightly nutty. Or a hot pink slick of raspberry glaze with the perfect balance of tart and sweet.
You can find mochi muffins and doughnuts in more than 60 retail locations across the Bay Area, but if you want to try Butarbutar’s more experimental flavors (and you do, trust me), you’ll want to visit the bakery. It’s Butarbutar’s lab, a place to experiment with flavors like yuzo, black sesame, saffron honey pistachio and the upcoming releases: buko pandan, strawberries and cream, Vietnamese coffee, blood orange and piña colada. It’s difficult to reproduce and transport his favorite flavors affordably for wholesale, he explains, which makes up a large part of the business.
The bakery-showroom is his chance to express himself through baked goods.
“I want to make pretty things, showy things,” Butarbutar says, “flavors from my childhood, like pandan and guava. Baking is like communication to me, and I want to expose people to parts of my culture that otherwise wouldn’t have been understood.”
And it shows, from the variety of custard cakes he has created (Thai tea! churro!) to savory mochi waffles with toppings, like creme brulee or kimchi with cheese (the latter are made with local maker Kimchee Jeanius’ product). Shyu’s influence, meanwhile, comes through with the bakery’s matcha program, which includes matcha sparkling sodas flavored with lychee raspberry or passion fruit puree.
Then there’s that name: Third Culture refers to third culture kids, which both founders are: a person who has spent a large part of their developmental years living outside their parents’ culture. As a half third culture kid myself (my mom is white and my dad is from Gujarat, India), I instantly connected with the name.
Growing up as a third culture kid makes you different from most. The phrase was coined by U.S. sociologist/anthropologist Dr. Ruth Hill Useem in the 1960s after living in India with her three sons for several years. According to Hill Useem, “The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.”
This rings true for both men. Both spent their formative years growing up in two different countries: Butarbutar in Indonesia and the U.S. (Jakarta and New York/Los Angeles), and Shyu in Taiwan and the U.S. (Taipei City and San Diego/Los Angeles counties). Both had to learn English in America, and because Butarbutar moved between his two countries five or six times until he was 10 (he’s now 30), he lost and had to relearn his native language every time he returned to Indonesia. “It was hard to assimilate here,” he says.
Shyu, who immigrated when he was 6 (he’s now 29), learned English by going to kindergarten, where he was teased and had to weather the grammatical differences between the languages. He didn’t hear the term “third culture kids” until college, but says it helped him grapple with his identity growing up in Los Angeles. “I totally identified with it. I wasn’t white enough for the white kids and wasn’t Asian enough for the Asian kids,” he says. It was his idea to use the concept for the bakery’s name. “A surprising amount of people have thanked us for it and shared their own stories of growing up in another culture,” he says.
As a company, Third Culture has scaled quickly. When they started in 2017, both left their careers (environmental science toxicology for Butarbutar, luxury retail for Shyu). In those early days, Butarbutar was the only baker on staff. He initially learned from his mom, who had baked and sold black forest cakes in Indonesia, and eventually worked in local kitchens. Shyu still worked a 9-to-5 job while he handled the business side of the bakery. The pair delivered their baked goods around the Bay Area before dawn in a 2005 black Toyota Matrix with the bumper taped on. They’d drive home on Interstate 580 around 5 a.m. as the sun rose. Shyu would nap, then go to work while Butarbutar would bake, repeating the cycle. They sold around 100 pieces a week.
Two years later, they have 18 employees, a production space in West Berkeley, and they sell 20,000 pieces of product a week. They are opening a bakery/showroom in Aurora, Colo., this summer, followed by a cafe in Denver.
Dozens of cafes and bakeries carry Third Culture products, but several are often guaranteed to have a wider range than most.
Third Culture Bakery (flagship): 2701 Eighth St., Berkeley
Highwire Coffee (multiple locations): Oakland, Berkeley, Albany
Boba Guys (multiple locations): San Francisco, San Carlos, Palo Alto, San Ramon
1951 Coffee: 2410 Channing Way, Berkeley; 2495 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
Bondadoso: 2195 N Broadway, Walnut Creek
Ballast Coffee: 329 West Portal Ave., San Francisco
Foodhall: 3100 16th St., San Francisco
Pinhole Coffee: 231 Cortland Ave., San Francisco
Red Giant Coffee: 2400 Broadway #110, Redwood City
Boba Drive: 677 Tasman Dr., Sunnyvale
Academic Coffee: 499 S. Second St., San Jose
While Butarbutar dips mochi doughnuts in a 12-quart container of ube coconut glaze, shaking off the excess, he talks about acceptance. As immigrant gay men, he says, the two have struggled to be accepted, and because of this they have tried to build a work environment filled with inclusion, a goal not lost on their employees.
“I really enjoy this job,” says Diana Sanchez, their kitchen manager, who is from Argentina. “This is the first I’ve had in the U.S. where I’ve felt respected by my bosses.”
Last year, both men came out to their families. It went well for Shyu, but Butarbutar faced a painful rejection.
“Ever since that moment, it has changed my intention to with the bakery,” Butarbutar says. “A lot of times, as a gay person, the family you’re born with isn’t necessarily the family you choose to be with, or accepts you. The bakery represents the family that I choose to be with.”
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