1922 Martin Luther King Jr. (at Berkeley Way), suite B, Berkeley
Tucked among a small row of businesses on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley is a modern, cozy shop selling pastries, cakes and snacks inspired by the Hawaiian islands. Ono Bakehouse opened during the pandemic, and has already found a following, being the only dedicated bakery in the East Bay to offer many of these treats.
“’Ono” means delicious in Hawaiian, and the bakery does not disappoint. Owner and chef Desiree Valencia said that she wanted to bring flavors and treats that she grew up eating to people in the Bay Area. “Some people have never had it, and some people miss it,” she said.
Though there are many people from Hawaii living in the Bay Area and California, there are not many local restaurants and bakeries serving food from the region. (Hawaii is one of 10 states where the population is declining, with people moving out of the state for employment or other reasons.)
Born and raised on Maui, Valencia attended culinary school on the island and eventually worked at the Maui location of Morimoto, a Japanese restaurant chain from Iron Chef star Masaharu Morimoto.
Wanting to gain more experience in the culinary world, Valencia moved to Morimoto in Napa, but she later worked at Saison in San Francisco and Bouchon Bakery in Napa, establishing herself as one of the go-to cooks and pastry chefs among some of the Bay Area’s highly lauded fine-dining establishments. Valencia most recently worked as the pastry chef at Niku Steakhouse in San Francisco.
When the pandemic hit, Valencia and her co-workers were suddenly out of work. She knew she always wanted to start her own place, and her friends encouraged her to bake and sell her desserts and snacks at a pop-up. She figured it was as a good a time to start as any. “We didn’t know when we’ll all have jobs again,” she said about the restaurant industry climate at the time.
Valencia partnered with Magnolia Mini Market in West Oakland in August 2020, where she sold a small selection of snacks, including her popular furikake snack mix. The sweet-and-savory mix — made of Chex cereal, Honeycomb cereal, pretzels, Fritos, seaweed, sesame and honey — is very addictive. She also experimented with selling ice cream and a pastry box. The pastry box did well, so she decided to focus on baking.
In late summer, Classic Cars West in Oakland hosted an event featuring foods from Hawaii. Valencia set up a tent along with fellow Bay Area food purveyors Always Aloha Shave Ice and Unco Franks. Valencia offered purple sweet potato haupia (coconut) pie, the furikake snack mix, Queen Emma cake slices, and butter mochi. She completely sold out by the end of the day.
Word of Valencia’s cooking spread through people who attended her pop-ups and via social media, mostly through Instagram. Soon, she found a location that was available on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. “It kind of all just happened one after,” Valencia said about opening her own brick-and-mortar location.
Ono Bakehouse officially opened in December, taking pandemic health and safety precautions by selling items via pre-order for pickup at the door. In accordance with the latest coronavirus restrictions, the small shop is now open for same-day, pre-order customers as well as walk-ins.
“We’re pretty much a normal shop; you can walk in, grab some stuff. It’s gotten a lot easier for all of us, I think,” Valencia said.
Valencia’s menu often rotates but her most popular items are kept available. Her experience working in fine dining and at mostly Asian restaurants shows through her baked goods and her drink selection. Valencia herself is mixed race, of Mexican and Japanese heritage, and growing up on Maui, where there is a mix of many ethnicities, she ate many Hawaiian and Asian dishes.
Many of the items on Ono Bakehouse’s menu Valencia grew up eating on Maui: snacks and baked goods that “everyone makes at home, or you can get … at the gas station or grocery stores.” This includes Spam musubi, chocolate haupia pie and butter mochi. For those familiar with some of these desserts, you’ll note Valencia puts her own stamp on her versions. Her butter mochi ($6), for example, includes toasted coconut and macadamia nuts on top; there’s also a vegan version ($5.50). And her chocolate haupia pie ($10), when compared to Hawaii’s popular Ted’s Bakery version, is slightly darker, richer and less sweet.
Valencia’s lilikoi pound cake ($5) is an individual-sized loaf drizzled with a coat of coconut and passion fruit glaze. It combines the best aspects of a buttery, not-too-dense pound cake with the tart sweetness of passion fruit, and it is topped with a sprinkling of poppy seeds. The flavor of the passion fruit is not overpowering but is strong enough for the essence of the fruit to shine through.
Valencia does not use artificial flavors for her fruit-based items. She sources locally as much as possible, including using fruit purees from a Napa-based company. Occasionally, if she can get her hands on fresh passion fruit, she will make the purees from scratch. She notes that the climate in the Bay Area is great for stone fruit and strawberries, but it’s harder to find locally grown passion fruit and guava, for example.
Each Ono Bakehouse item shows off Valencia’s culinary chops, but the star of the bakery is the Queen Emma Cake, a layered, pastel-colored visual stunner.
While growing up in Maui, Valencia ate Queen Emma Cake on special occasions, such as birthdays. Valencia recalls that bakeries on Maui made them, offering different fruit and botanical flavors in their layers — such as POG, the popular combination of passion fruit, orange and guava juice that originated on Maui, and fragrant green pandan leaves.
For her Queen Emma, Valencia makes slightly denser chiffon cake layers, flavoring each with guava, coconut and lilikoi. Her coconut mousse is rich, but overall, it’s still a very light cake that’s both beautiful and delicious. The subtle flavors of each individual layer and the coconut mousse are distinct, but they all come together in harmony when eaten in a single bite. Queen Emma Cake is sold as slices ($8) or as a whole cake by special order ($65 for a small cake, $115 for a large sheet cake).
Ono Bakehouse also offers some popular Chinese pastries, including a savory, spiraled bun inspired by green onion buns ($5) found at many Taiwanese bakeries, and the hot dog bun ($3.50). She notes that these are some of her favorite items at the bakeries.
While Ono is primarily a bakery, its drink menu is also worth noting. Because there are other specialty coffee shops nearby in Berkeley, Valencia offers a selection of unique or interesting drinks. Latte X ($6.50) is made with San Leandro-based Proyecto Diaz espresso and malted milk, while Matcha X ($6.50) is made with Roots and Craft single-origin, organic matcha and malted milk. Ono’s version of the matcha latte is slighty salty, a welcome change from overly sweet matcha drinks. The bakery also sells craft-brewed, hops-based sparkling canned teas from Bay Area-based Hoptonic, which give a caffeine buzz and, because of the hops, are slightly reminiscent of beer.
While the menu at Ono Bakehouse is short, there’s plenty to try. I found myself wanting to go back — to sample each and every item, and to get a taste of Hawaii.
Ono Bakehouse is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Order via website for same-day pickup, or stop by during the shop’s hours. The menu goes live every morning at 9 a.m.
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