Photo by Cameron Yong
Photo by Cameron Yong

University Village is experiencing something of a restaurant Renaissance this academic year. Last September marked the twin openings of Calibasil and Oven 450, and more arrivals are incoming, with posters hinting at venues like a new sports bar. This year, UCR students will have more dining options than ever before.

The newest addition to the burgeoning basket of eateries sprouting throughout University VIllage is Uncle Chuang’s Bakery. Inconspicuously nestled next to the 7-Eleven in the northwest corner of University Village, Uncle Chuang’s Bakery (abbreviated UC Bakery) doesn’t have any seating, so it isn’t so much a restaurant as simply a store that exclusively sells a wide variety of baked goods. But that doesn’t make the food it offers any less delicious.

The first thing that strikes me about the place is the dizzying array of products lined up on the shelves. At least 10 different types of bread loaves are available, and sweet buns are everywhere, with rich and varied flavors. With so many baked goods present, it’s difficult to choose. The variety is enough to get your mouth watering, and trays are provided so you can indulge in as many pastries as will fit. I quickly take advantage of them.

Selection is always better in the morning, when the pastries roll out of the kitchen. And if you’re early enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of the man behind the operation: Sam Chuang, a friendly, outgoing person who can recite the exact time of his arrival to the United States at the drop of a hat (3 o’ clock) and is eager to show me around the store. When we talk about the bakery, it is easy to see the enthusiasm in his eyes. He’s certainly proud of his work — every few minutes, he unfailingly urges me to take another sample. I politely demur. He insists.

Before long, I’ve eaten one of everything on offer.

In between bites of delicious pastries, I manage to ask him about why he decided to start UC Bakery here in Riverside near UCR. “To give students a choice,” he immediately responds, saying that there aren’t a lot of dining options available near UCR (a sentiment I’m sure many UCR students share).

UC Bakery certainly does fit a gaping void in the market for baked goods. Bakeries are few and far between in Riverside, with the emphasis on “far.” UC Bakery differentiates itself by maintaining a decidedly Asian focus: no bagels or croissants here. And though the store has more substantial offerings (sandwiches and the vegetable-and-pork buns come to mind), the emphasis is on the confectionary. There are taro buns and almond cookies. Shelves stock chocolate bread and cream puffs. When I notice they sell pineapple buns, I make sure to grab one.

Chuang decided to give the bakery its start when his daughter, a second-year business major here at UCR, lamented the difficulty in finding a cake for her friend’s birthday. After an hours-long search, she settled on a generic grocery store cake, which, as Chuang pointedly noted to me, languished in the refrigerator for a week before it became inedible and was junked.

It’s no wonder, then, that cakes are also on sale, with prices ranging from $15 to $25 depending on size, shape and type — not too shabby. In fact, low price is a recurring theme throughout the store. A whole loaf of chocolate bread maxes out at $2.50. The most expensive sweet rolls will run you $1.50. With the exception of cakes and a few especially large items, pretty much everything is readily accessible in the $1-$3 price range. If you buy $5 or more worth of stuff, you’ll even get a free drink on the house. The drinks aren’t especially high quality — just your standard pre-packaged tea bags and hot cocoa mix — but it is free after all.

The quality of the food, however, didn’t take a hit. The ham, cheese and egg sandwich sounded off-putting to me at first mention, but the savory flavors and crunch of the cucumber convinced me otherwise, and it’s become one of my favorites. The hot dog, cheese and green onion bun was similarly spurned. But I was surprised to find that the sweet bun blended well with the cheese, and the chilled hot dog ensured that the taste of meat didn’t overpower the entire thing. The green onions were a bit too clustered for my taste (on one occasion leaving my mouth full of cellulose), but the subtle sweetness belied its filling nature and made me wonder why I’d been so judgmental. Almond cookies always sound good, but the sweetness of the ones at Uncle Chuang’s met the Goldilocks condition: not overpoweringly sweet, but just enough to leave you chomping at the bit for more.

The entire goal behind the bakery, Chuang explains, is to bring authentic, high-quality baked goods at low prices to the student population. That’s why they start baking at 2 in the morning, and some workers drive in from as far as Rosemead.

Not everything is perfect, but they are largely outliers. The pineapple buns’ pineapple is less creamy than I anticipated and tasted more like a concha (a type of Mexican sweet roll with sugar icing on top) than what I’m used to. Similarly, the vegetable and pork buns are disappointing and lacked the savory punch that makes many of the other plates memorable.

But as Chuang eagerly showed me around the kitchen, showing off the machinery that ensured the cream puffs stayed moist and the huge baking oven, it was clear to see the enthusiasm he had for the venture.

He says he wants to open another bakery near UC San Diego, and if the price and quality of the Riverside branch are any indication, he’ll have the ability to make it a success. But for right now, the Riverside shop will give students enough options to satiate their stomachs without emptying their wallets.