This is part one of “Baking Connections,” a series on three local bakers and the popular baked goods with Asian flavors they are bringing to the D.C. region.
D.C.-area bakers are expanding the palates of pastry lovers by introducing them to baked goods infused with Asian flavors — from pandan coconut doughnuts and black sesame mochi rolls to matcha almond croissants.
This bakery niche became incredibly popular nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been gaining steam in the D.C. area since.
WTOP spoke to three bakers who have concocted modern twists on classic recipes and, along the way, built on their unique pastry education to take Asian-inspired baking in completely different directions.
At Rose Ave Bakery in Woodley Park, the pastries are artfully displayed behind a glass counter: from the Spam musubi croissants beautifully drizzled with unagi sauce, stuffed with caramelized spam and sprinkled with furikake, to the perfectly sugar-dusted doughnuts with ever-changing fillings and tiny dollops of toppings.
Ube is one of the classic flavors always in the bakery’s doughnut lineup. Purple yams, native to the Philippines, make the perfect nutty, sweet filling that oozes out as you bite through the layers of the fluffy dough.
Rosie Nguyen, a petite woman with a commanding presence, is the creative mind behind the pastry. Nguyen went to nursing school, but says she would have been an artist if her parents had been more supportive of that career.
She went on to work as a nurse for a decade before she got into baking and first opened Rose Ave Bakery in The Block food hall location in downtown D.C. right before the pandemic in 2020.
“I loved to work with my hands,” Nguyen said of her childhood. “I had a whole gift shop in my bedroom, where I’d give out my creations to family and friends.”
Nguyen first took up baking as a hobby while still working at the Children’s National Hospital. She posted photos of her pastries on her Instagram and shared them with friends. From there, she started working in bakeries and as a pastry chef in restaurants part-time to practice and refine her baking skills while still working as a full-time nurse.
What makes her classic baked goods so fascinating is how she is constantly changing up her flavor inspirations, from the curries of South Asia to the Spam used ubiquitously in Hawaii and Japan. She also educates pastry lovers about the flavors she uses, recently highlighting Filipino American History Month in October.
“I want to represent me as a person, and I feel like that’s basically what I did here,” Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, said. “As an Asian American creative person, that’s what Rose Ave is and that’s what it embodies: the palate of an Asian American.”
Nguyen is always selling inventive cakes or savory treats, like her congee balls that are doughy donut-hole sized versions of Chinese porridge, but she mainly sticks to savory or sweet croissants and her doughnuts.
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Other local bakery owners told WTOP that spreading cultural awareness is also a large part of their mission.
The Cultural Ambassadors
Yuri Oberbillig is the head baker and co-owns three locations of SakuSaku Flakerie in D.C. with her husband Jason. She said that she tries to bring awareness of Japanese and other Asian flavors at her shops.
The Oberbilligs first opened a tiny Cleveland Park pastry shop in the front of an Italian restaurant in the middle of the pandemic.
There, Yuri fills her famous mochi rolls — a rendition of a cinnamon roll made with mochi, a glutinous rice flour kneaded into a gooey dough — with all kinds of alternating flavors, including spiced kabocha squash and red bean paste. They each come covered in a creamy, sweet icing.
Her favorite pastry is a Kouign-amann. The muffin-shaped pastry is made of layers of croissant dough, each laced traditionally with sugar and cinnamon, with a perfectly crispy exterior and buttery soft interior. Yuri fills her Kouign-amann with everything from matcha to a yuzu cheesecake.
“I’m just trying to show our culture in these pastries,” Yuri said.
The soft-spoken baker is always somewhere wearing a pink apron in their Tenleytown location. Whether she is baking in the kitchen or answering customers’ questions as they mull over pastry and drink options in line, Yuri creates a blanket of calm over the bustling shop.
Yuri has always been inspired by the many different Asian cultures, she said, sometimes drawing from flavors she remembers from her childhood in Japan or local D.C. restaurants. She remembers seeing mango sticky rice on a Thai menu recently, which inspired her to create a mango coconut mochi roll.
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Yuri worked at a café in her hometown of Kobe when she was younger, which is where she was introduced to baking.
“And then I started going to cooking school, and they had this bread class. And that made me really happy,” Yuri said. “And I started baking at home.”
That need to learn more about baking took Yuri to Vancouver, Canada, where she was taught everything there was to know about dough at a small bakery.
“My life changed,” Yuri said. “I think that made me think, ‘OK, I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.'”
Yuri had worked at a few bakeries in the area, including A Baked Joint, but had never run her own shop before. Her husband, Jason, remembers jumping in to help her manage the new business.
“I was working for the Census at the time and [Yuri] called me and said, ‘I’m opening up a bakery in three days,'” Jason recounts.
They came up with the name SakuSaku Flakerie together, which represents Yuri’s obsession with creating croissants with that perfect crunch. “Saku” means breaking in Japanese and Jason claims to have invented the word “flakerie,” combining the word flaky, a nod to the texture of their pastries, with patisserie, the French word for pastry shop.
A baker that assisted Yuri at her original small storefront went on to open her own bakery, and in her own way is connecting communities in Northern Virginia.
Shurou Pu creates an array of pastries under a unique brand, operating Toimoi bakery out of a commercial kitchen in Chantilly, Virginia, that opens up as a storefront every weekend. But she also runs stands for her bakery at local farmers markets throughout the year, expanding to three Northern Virginia markets during the summer.
Pu’s baked goods combine her “French pastry training experience” with her Chinese background.
“Toimoi in French means ‘you’ and ‘me,’ meaning that the pastry will connect one and the other together,” Pu explained. She has worked in New York City and D.C., but specifically set up shop in Fairfax County because of its large Asian American population, hoping to connect the many cultures in the region.
“Everyone will feel like they can find something they are really familiar with, and something that they ate from their childhood,” Pu said. “I just want to create this kind of experience, for everyone who has our pastries.”
Pu recreates familiar Asian flavors in inventive desserts each weekend, such as Thai tea tres leches cake, bacon miso danishes and flavored mochi.
Pu also sold some of the first thick, disc-shaped Suprême croissants in the D.C. area — head-sized confections that first went viral at Lafayette Grand Café and Bakery in New York City. The croissants are decadent, supersizing everything you love in a traditional croissant while also being filled with creamy matcha and ube fillings.
The exuberant, bespectacled baker had worked in more typical bakeries throughout most of her career, including a three-year stint at Maison Kayser in New York, but she began to see that there was a niche corner to grow a business at farmers markets and experiment in the kitchen without investing in rented spaces.
“Americans are always looking for something interesting, unique,” Pu said. “That’s why we’re always updating our menu and creating new flavors, with Asian flavors especially, to make people more interested and want to come to the farmers market every week.”
While working long hours Thursday through Sunday out of her home kitchen at first, Pu started selling out at markets and had to start offering preorders so loyal fans could secure their favorite baked goods in advance. Now, she’s expanded to a rented kitchen and more permanent storefront to accommodate her bakery’s growing success.
These creative bakers have been building their businesses for over three years, but they’ve all experienced fast-paced growth in the past six months, expanding to brick-and-mortar locations in D.C. and Virginia.
Check back for part two of “Baking Connections,” where Nguyen, the Oberbilligs, and Pu share their business growing pains and how they forged their unconventional paths to local fame.