Business & Real Estate

Hong Kong-style desserts reach Mountain View

Durian mochi
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A newcomer to durian can try it wrapped in mochi and rolled in coconut flakes at SweetHoney Dessert in Mountain View.

The voluminous menu at the new SweetHoney Dessert in Mountain View offers starting-off points for diners new to Hong Kong-style sweets, but also a deep back catalog of classics that will taste like home to longtime fans of the genre.

Diners are greeted with a glass of complimentary roasted oolong tea at the 841 Villa St. dessert cafe, located just off Castro Street downtown. Tofu pudding, grass jelly, sago and toddy palm appear frequently on a menu dedicated to a balance of sweet and earthy. Creamy puddings are offset by the chewy bounce of pounded glutinous rice or pearl-like tapioca that serves as an iconic textural element in many desserts. The brave among us can relish the malodorous stink of durian, the custardy, yellow-green fruit whose flesh tastes better than it smells. The crowd-pleasing mango pancake wraps a handmade crepe around super-ripe mango and whipped cream with the glossy heft of an Italian meringue.

Allen Yang

Allen Yang, the man behind the dessert genre’s local incarnation, said he is opening 16 locations around the Bay Area after the success of his first, in San Leandro, which opened in 2015. The Mountain View cafe, which occupies the space previously home to the Korean eatery Song Pa and, before that, Totoro, includes seating but also was doing a brisk takeout business last week.

“We saw a lot of Americans – different cultures of people – coming in and trying it out, and they loved it,” Yang said.

Brisk business out of the gate

Mango PancakeBy two days after the cafe’s opening, its curious first-time visitors were filling the shop just after its midafternoon opening. The cafe is unusual for Mountain View in that it opens at 1 p.m. most days of the week (3 p.m. Tuesdays) and then stays open until midnight. The prep cooks start their day much earlier, beginning to craft their pancakes and puddings at 7 a.m. each morning.

SweetHoney Dessert has a contract with a farm that produces pomelos, the giant grapefruit-like citrus with tart, juicy pink flesh, and a carefully structured supply chain intended to guarantee perfectly ripe mangoes, a core menu constituent, across the seasons. Yang said that in addition to contracting directly with Mexican mango farmers, SweetHoney uses a central warehouse to receive and ripen mangoes, distributing them on a ready-to-use basis to the individual dessert shops when they reach their peak.

Almond/Sesame soup with rice balls

The tofu pudding begins life as whole soy beans, which are boiled, blended, filtered and set with gelatin and a dash of sugar before they commingle with companions such as mango puree, toddy palm or coconut in the cold dessert bowls that make up much of the menu. Hot dessert soups – traditionally eaten year-round, not just in winter months – combine savory ingredients such as blanched almonds and roasted black sesame seeds with a dash of sugar and, again, the essential chewy bounce of rice balls stuffed with ground black sesame.

Yang recommended that beginners seeking a first encounter with durian try the mochi – small, round glutinous pastries rolled in coconut and stuffed with ripe durian flesh. The coconut is offered as a distraction, or amelioration, to cut the durian’s essential funkiness.

“It’s a heavy smell; durian is not everyone’s thing,” he said, acknowledging that he himself didn’t number among its fans.

Flavorful culture

Tofu pudding with mangoYang’s personal top menu pick: the tofu pudding and mango puree, which comes with a scoop of chewy sago pearls, cubes of ripe mango flesh and a dollop of bittersweet pomelo flesh.

“In one bite, you taste the mango, the tapioca, the grapefruit – it’s a lot of flavors in one bite,” he said of the balance that many of the delicate desserts architect as an aesthetic goal. “If we put in too much sugar, we cover up the regional taste.”

Yang grew up in Hong Kong and described the dessert shops as an opportunity for American eaters to “explore the culture.” He noted that Mountain View was an appealing location to open because “you have different cultures of people willing to try a new thing.”

“Once you walk in and feel the warmth, hear conversations at the next table, you don’t need a big place, just a bowl of dessert and chitchat. That can be your Friday night,” he said of the cafe, which became one of Mountain View’s few late-night spots, and one of even fewer that focus on something other than alcohol.

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