On Sundays, the usually busy corner of Carleton and Eighth Street in West Berkeley is quiet and slow. Standard Fare, the neighborhood’s popular lunch destination, is closed, and Le Noisette, the beloved bakery, is shut as well, its crew busy with regional farmers markets. Only Third Culture Bakery is doing its usual business, with a long line for mochi doughnuts and matcha drinks. And now there’s a new sign on the block, announcing that a weekly option beckons. It’s inviting pastry lovers to check out Year of the Snake.
Operating on Sundays out of the commercial kitchen of Morell’s Bread, Year of the Snake is a new pop-up from baker Patty Lu. Hers is not a recent, pandemic-inspired undertaking; back in 2016, Lu, who’s now based in Emeryville, was a baker at big-time pastry operation Tartine, even helping to open the iconic chain’s South Korea location. Also in Lu’s resume is a stint at at another San Francisco institution, Outerlands, and another one as a part-time baker at From Roy, a luxury limited-edition panettone operation.
During the pandemic, Outerlands shut down completely for over a year. So Lu, like many individuals in the hospitality industry, became an entrepreneur of sorts, selling her pastries she baked at home at Oakland’s Magnolia Mini Mart. Then she popped up in Palo Alto, partnering with another baker, Nariya Charoensupay. Year of the Snake, as of 2022, is her most intentional take on solo baking. The idea behind the business, Lu, 32, said, “is an Asian American bakery concept, and representative of my generation. I try to make it as creative as possible.”
Creative is an understatement. Joining a flourishing trend of Asian-American pastry offerings in the Bay, from cult favorite Grand Opening to East Bay’s own Sunday Bakeshop and Bake Sum, Lu somehow manages to reinvent the wheel. On her menu, on any given Sunday, there’s a fun pretzel cone with jalapeno cream cheese filling; a delicious kimchi-potato focaccia; hard-boiled eggs marinated in tea and spices — sold unpeeled and still warm; and Chinese sausage, garlic and chive biscuits.
For sweet-toothed clients Lu makes Portuguese egg tarts, which are hard to come by in the Bay Area — people sometimes poke their head in after they’ve purchased one and shout, “That was the best egg tart ever!” Lu said. “The egg tarts are super labor-intensive, sturdy yet flaky,” she explained — the dough technique goes way beyond rolling out frozen puff pastry. There’s also a black sesame bostock — a brioche-like sweet thing, and Silhouettes — thin, crisp sandwich cookies with a chocolate-tahini filling. The most recent addition is a Japanese cheesecake, spongy and creamy.
“I just want to offer unique flavors,” Lu said. “If someone else was to bake the same thing, I’d probably stop doing it.” Admittedly not a huge lover of sweets, Lu certainly enjoys a good savory pastry, and her selection represents that. For ideas, she looks at cookbooks, thinks back on the Japanese and Chinese snacks she used to eat as a child and ponders different shapes and textures. A trip to Korea inspired her focaccia, and underscores that Year of the Snake isn’t a purely Chinese bakery.
“I learned so much working at Tartine,” Lu said when asked about her past experience. Her responsibility was sourdough, which Lu no longer makes, but, she said, “watching the pastry bakers that worked so hard making a variety of pastries in one shift, it’s a good experience learning how to make pastries on a larger scale.”
Currently, in Berkeley, Year of the Snake is a much more intimate operation. It’s just Lu and her mother, who comes to help with the retail side of things, and a neat counter with the pastries proudly displayed. A stark contrast to Third Culture’s iridescent mochi offerings around the corner, Lu’s creations are minimalist and not Instagram bait-ish at first glance. One must taste them to tap into the magic.
While the pop-up is still rather new, Lu is slowly getting noticed. She’s been invited to offer her pastries at the weekend wine tastings at Broc Cellars — Lu had worked with them over the summer, helping make wine — and another pop-up location is in the works.
“I always wanted to have a café but right now I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Lu said. Meanwhile, those who stumble upon Lu’s endeavor on the sleepy street corner can enjoy her singular treats every Sunday, one at a time, or by the dozen.