DEBORAH AMOS, Host:
NPR's Neda Ulaby went to check out 85C's test location at Irvine, California, where the company is working out the kinks before it expands.
NEDA ULABY: Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) ice or is it hot?
STEPHANIE PENG: Unidentified Woman: Oh, okay.
PENG: Okay. Yeah. (Unintelligible)
ULABY: It sounds exotic, but the salt flavor is incredibly subtle. You have to tease it out with your tongue.
PENG: It's really unique. Like, the sea salt's actually in like the cream, the foam part, so it just brings in more coffee essence.
ULABY: Manager Stephanie Peng is 24 years old. Orange County bred and born, she's charged with helping the company appeal to U.S. palettes. Peng's worked with chefs to tweak the 85C menu.
PENG: We made it a little bit sweeter here, a little bit saltier here - more flavor, actually.
ULABY: Some soft buns come stuffed with red bean paste or dried pork, blueberries or hot dogs.
JULIA HUANG: Squid bread.
ULABY: I'm sorry. What is this?
HUANG: This is squid-ink bread.
ULABY: That's Julia Huang. She says because each item costs less than a dollar, there is an incentive to stray outside your flavor comfort zone. Huang tracks Asian trends in the U.S. and she thinks 85C could gain real traction in the U.S. market.
HUANG: For some reason, the past four or five years, the American tastes in terms of - and you know, we're not talking about cuisine, we're talking about snacks - comfort food has changed so much.
ULABY: Now, in my Midwestern upbringing, comfort food was generally not the same color as Barney.
HUANG: That is a very purple roll.
PENG: Marbled taro is actually one of our top sellers. We make our own taro filling, really soft, really flaky. Customers love it.
ULABY: Catalina Jimenez is from Spain. She works in finance and she waits in 85C's line at lunch for half an hour. How often?
CATALINA JIMENEZ: Every day or every other day. It's horrible. When it first opened, I would see the crowds outside. I'm like oh my god, everybody's just losers waiting for the pastries - and there I am, the biggest loser. I come and I do the line every day.
ULABY: Another 85C regular is Abraham Walker, a South African native who never expected to enjoy Taiwanese coffee and cake in the U.S.
ABRAHAM WALKER: Very light and fluffy, you know, not thick and heavy. Quite honestly, I wouldn't mind having a share in this business. It's busy all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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